Thursday, June 23, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 880: The Decemberists

It would seem we have the beginnings of a run on indie folk music.

Disc 880 is….Picaresque
Artist: The Decemberists

Year of Release: 2005

What’s up with the Cover? It is supposed to look like a low budget stage play, with the character of “Eli, The Barrow Boy” (one of the songs) looking wistfully into the distance. No doubt he is dreaming that if he nails this performance in the high school musical he’ll be on Broadway in no time. No thanks to the set designer, mind you.

How I Came To Know It: Just me drilling through the Decemberists’ back catalogue.

How It Stacks Up:  I have six Decemberists albums, which is all but one of them (I’m going to buy “The Hazards of Love” next time I see it). Of the six I do have, I rate “Picaresque” at #4. Not great against their other work, but I still liked it.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

Colin Meloy was born two hundred years too late, but on “Picaresque” the Decemberists front-man and songwriter shows that he’s adapted well to the conditions.

A “picaresque” is a story with rough edges and rough characters, and the Decemberists’ album follows suit, telling a series of tales that feel like they stepped right out of a dark fairy tale. Meloy is brilliant at such tales and his lyrics feel like a short story about a character that you want to read more about after the song ends.

Meloy has a deep and varied vocabulary and he employs it in an antiquarian way, but always through a prism of modern romanticism that is fresh and interesting. These songs are all original, but have a timeless quality that makes them feel like they are Victorian poems set to music.

The album’s title was a new word to me, and the first line of the first song features the word “palanquin” which I also didn’t know. That song, “The Infanta” captures a moment of pomp and ceremony upon the arrival of some foreign queen on a covered litter (a palanquin). It instantly made me think of what Catherine of Aragon’s arrival in London would have seemed like to commoners lining the streets. While “The Infanta” is not my favourite track (it is a bit manic, if deliberately so) but it is still a good song, filled with the right amount of glitz to match its subject matter.

As with a lot of Decemberists songs, the tragedy is lurking around the corner, but often not spelled out. While not in the song, as listeners we know that Henry VIII would divorce Catherine of Aragon and she would go on to live a large part of her life isolated in a foreign kingdom, where few spoke her native Spanish. If you didn’t know that then this is a good time to point out that history can make art more interesting.

My favourite track on the album is “Eli, The Barrow Boy” a mournful ghost story, well served by an easy strumming  on guitar and the high slight vibrato of Meloy’s voice. Eli dies shortly after his truest love, drowned (or perhaps drowning himself) in the nearby river. His ghost still pushes his barrow when the moon is full. Also, he shows up for album cover shoots.

Immediately after this slow and haunted tune, we get the up-tempo swing of “The Sporting Life” about a promising young athlete who has gone down on the field with some horrific injury. The band’s cheerful music is juxtaposed against the situation, as Meloy manages to capture the manic glory that some find when an athlete gets hurt. The crowd is seeking a compelling comeback story, but the song is from the perspective of the injured athlete, who is starting to see what reality looks like away from the lights:

“And father had such hopes
For a son who would take the ropes
And fulfill all his old athletic aspirations
But apparently now there’s some complications.

“But while I’m lying here
Trying to fight the tears
I’ll prove to the crowd that I come out stronger
(Though I think I might lie here a little longer).”

Unlike a lot of lesser indie folk music, the Decemberists infuse their densely written songs with a core of emotion that makes you care about these characters. On “The Engine Driver,” when Meloy sings “If you don’t love me, let me go” his pleas are deep and poignant. The cold indifference coming in response from the object of his affection is never mentioned, yet forms the core of the song.

The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is a modern take on a traditional sea shanty. The song is nine minutes of slow building tale of revenge where you know the punchline from the opening verse, but savour every step down into the darkness.

The album doesn’t really have any clunkers, although I found “the Bagman’s Gambit” overlong and “On the Bus Mall” a bit sprawling. They aren’t bad songs, just songs that don’t hold up as well as those around them.

The album ends with “Of Angels and Angles,” a quiet observation of love, with a hint of sadness at the edges that again, is never voiced (I think it is aging, but it is just a guess).

“Picaresque” is a thoughtful album that took some getting used to, but was worth the extra effort.

Best tracks:  Eli the Barrow Boy, The Sporting Life, The Engine Driver, The Mariner’s Revenge Song, Of Angels and Angles

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