There are few modern bands that fully embrace how powerful of a medium music is. The Decemberists are of this scarce group who use music to tell stories—stories of life and living against the backdrop of unseen spectacles. They appreciate the mystery and secrets that layer life’s lush meaning, value and its simple wonders. Their latest album, Picaresque, embraces these mysteries, skinning the hides of normalcy to reveal the most realistic fantasies that child monarchs, runaway prostitutes, ghosts, spiteful mariners, drowning angels, cannibals and suicidal couples walk among us everyday. With the whimsical album cover and their lovely detailed stories within each song, clearly The Decemberists prove that all the world’s a stage.
Even in its creation, Picaresque inspires the unconventional during its recording in a Baptist church. The sound has much of a vaudeville and cabaret feel, with rich violins and accordions supporting lead vocalist Colin Meloy’s boldly caustic voice. The harmonies are nothing less than sea-shanty worthy. The mesmerizing quality of highs and lows that crescendo throughout each song illustrate each narrative with the power to lift moods and lead minds to the darkest of places. They create characters with as much affection and specificity as a best-selling novelist. While there may be no concise beginning or end, there is nonetheless a scene portrayed as skillfully and detailed as a snapshot from an elephant’s memory. In “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” they recorded live around one microphone, very much paralleling the theater quality of spontaneity as well as having everyone know their parts—a true stage performance.
It is apparent that an ongoing theme within the entire album is of love and loss and the tragedies surrounding both. Whether it is forbidden love, unrequited love, the loss of childhood or the loss of lovers, each character has some form of tragedy driving its psyche. The instruments play accordingly—intense and deep with rolling drums, wailing violins, and heavy guitars when these characters undergo their major strife; and they are dreamy and light mostly when the chorus repeats to tell of the story’s echoing core with whichever fitting emotion that the song invokes.
Rarely in the pop-folk-rock category is there ever a band so dedicated and involved with every aspect of their duties as musicians. The Decemberists truly illustrate how rich and lush modern songwriting and storytelling can be. With their elements of theater, vaudeville quality and quirky scruples, Picaresque reveals a dreamy landscape of the lovely secrets and overlooked surprises of notions that everyday life is anything but—that there is a mysterious force whispering in our ears as we dream: we are greater than we will ever know. Shakespeare appreciated the all-encompassing scale of the world being but one grand stage; The Decemberists bring the stage to your ears.
(Kill Rock Stars)