Once In My Life is the first track on The Decemberists‘ new album and it exemplifies why the new synth-heavy sound they’ve adopted isn’t entirely successful. It starts unsurprisingly enough, with jangling guitar and Colin Meloy’s quavering vocals. “Oh for once in my, oh for once in my life / Could just something go, could just something go right,” he sings. It calls to mind Morrissey singing Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want; it’s the repetition that does it. Is this deliberate? Surely not: no one sets themselves up for failure by trying to sound like The Smiths.
Then, after 90 seconds, the synths arrive. They add next to nothing, just a bit of texture, which would probably have been provided by an accordion on an earlier Decemberists album. The Smiths might not be cited as an influence on this record, but Roxy Music and New Order are: the bar is set high. But as the synths build, Once In My Life starts to have moments that sound like a deliberate initiation of New Order’s Temptation. It feels awkwardly fanboy.
To be fair, there are tracks here like lead single Severed, where The Decemberists take ownership of their synth sound a bit more, using it to drive the music rather than as a backing track. Your Ghost is another success: it has a driving beat, a nice solo that keeps you guessing for a while as to whether it’s played on guitar or synth (it actually appears twice, once on each instrument), and a chorus that climaxes with backing vocals that bring to mind Sparks. But there are one or two too many that follow the same formula as Once In My Life.
The rather maudlin lyrics of that song set the album’s thematic tone. Further track titles include Everything Is Awful, Sucker’s Prayer and We All Die Young. This is no bad thing: after all we are living in gloomy times, and the songs are tongue in cheek enough that they function more like voices of camaraderie than gloomy commentary. Everything Is Awful in particular has more glam backing vocals and the cute couplet, “I know you’ve worked so hard to hoist your own petard”. We All Die Young is all swagger and stomp; there’s a prominent Thin Lizzy vibe and a couple of saxophone parts, but it all works.
The final couple of tracks are more like classic Decemberists songs. Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes is an eight minute diptych that goes back to the band’s early stock in trade of folk ballads and sea shanties, albeit with some dubious synth highlights. The title track, a simple acoustic number, but again with dubious synth highlights, provides an odd ending; it’s as though we’re listening to a group who haven’t quite fully embraced the album’s new sound.
And therein lies the main problem with I’ll Be Your Girl: it feels as though The Decemberists are wearing the clothes of the synth-driven sound rather than truly inhabiting it. It’s clear that they could continue to put out decent indie folk albums and understandable that they’d want to try something else. But they haven’t quite made it work.
The album is at its best when it explores glam influences: the campness and flamboyance nicely mirror the theatrical nature of The Decemberists’ established repertoire. But they would do well to learn that sticking some synthesiser parts behind a guitar band doesn’t automatically make them New Order. Maybe this is a transitional record for The Decemberists and their next will iron out the creases. Or maybe they’ll go back to what they’ve previously done best.