Album Reviews

The Decemberists – Picaresque

(Rough Trade) UK release date: 8 August 2005


I’d never want to play Scrabble against Colin Meloy. The leader of the Decemberists is an arch lyricist and possesses an encyclopaedic knowledge of the more arcane corners of the English language.

Picaresque (word score 23) is the band’s third LP. In the 19th Century Meloy would have made his fortune as a man of letters or diarist. He doesn’t so much write lyrics as pen miniature portraits and short stories.

Picaresque is a type of fiction that involves rascals, knaves, rogues and adventurers. The stories/songs on the LP capture this perfectly. They paint arresting pictures of barrow boys, urchins, fops and whalers. They conjure up a world of Dickens, CS Forester and on the more contemporary numbers the brisk economy of Raymond Carver. Now that’s not something that you could say about Noel Gallagher or Bono, is it?

The Decemberists share a sound with Neutral Milk Hotel and a producer with Death Cab For Cutie. Meloy’s lyrics are backed by a sparkling indie skiffle, equal parts alt.rock and rum sodden folk. Sea shanties, punchy brass and sassy female backing vocals have broadened out the band’s sound from their previous releases.

Their new found musical palette is perfectly showcased on the opening Infanta. A storming Turkish bazaar of a song, eastern melodies and a galloping rhythm are whipped into shape by a series of musical climaxes. The song slackens for the bridge before exploding into a riot of violin and piano for the coda.

It is unfair to Meloy to quote his lyrics at length as it spoils the surprise, but he manages to rhyme “veranda” with “my sweet untouched Miranda” on We Both Go Down Together, a feat of sublime skill.

On The Bus The Mall the guitars sparkle like Johnny Marr in his Smiths pomp, all shimmering melodies and gentle twists. A stinging slashed guitar opens 16 Military Wives before the brass drenched chorus bounces the song into the realms of indie soul.

The Sporting Life is built upon a frantic Iggy Pop beat but the lyrics of a failed American Quarter Back rings a little hollow as Meloy isn’t a Jock and as a result the lyrics lack bite.

And this is a problem with Picaresque generally. On The Engine Driver Meloy sings from the perspective of the driver, a county lineman, a writer and a moneylender. The slippery nature of his unquestionably clever prose affects the whole collection. Meloy hides behind so many masks, speaks in so many voices and disappears behind the facades of his characters that it leaves the record lacking a certain amount of focus. There are no glimpses into his muse, his soul. He appears at the centre of the songs but somehow completely allusive.

He is a cipher for the tales, a blank slate. And this leaves the record lacking in emotion and warmth. I much prefer a little wit and thought to the moon in June school of lyric writing that seems so prevalent at present. Yet somehow the songs on Picaresque seem too contrived and theatrical, like a performance by a bunch of English students at the end of term revue. At times The Decemberists sail close to being an horrific hybrid of The Might Be Giants and The Coral – all arched eyebrows and accordions. And that’s fine if you like that kind of thing.


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