The Decemberists Explore New Sounds and Express New Hope on ‘I’ll Be Your Girl’

The Decemberists have crafted droll lyrical balladry with old-timey folk-rock stylings for the greater part of two decades, channeling their sound into such avenues as stoner metal-tinged rock opera, in 2009’s “Hazards of Love,” and the more subdued, rustic musings of 2011’s “The King Is Dead.” The band’s eighth album, “I’ll Be Your Girl,” finds Colin Meloy and crew trying their hands at tricks both old and new, to an effect that is both satisfyingly familiar and refreshingly novel.

The Decemberists have typically eschewed the standard self-introspection of indie rock, instead fashioning songs from playfully indulgent, verbose narratives. Their lyrics sometimes seem designed to be read through spectacles so high-end that they require no prescription at all — Urban Outfitters would be proud. The personal and straightforward lyrics of the new record’s opening track mark a considerable departure. Even coming from someone who has always worn his fondness for Morrissey on his sleeve, “Once In My Life,” strikes as almost plagiaristic. Compare “Oh, for once in my life… Could just something go right?” to “Please, for once in my life, let me get what I want,” from the Smith’s “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” In “Tripping Alone,” the line, “Oh but what I’d do just to lie with you, die in your arms,” recalls another Smiths lyric, “To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die.” The influence of Morrissey is also apparent throughout the album in the fitting of morose material to upbeat music. Meloy dedicates a considerable share of the new songs to lugubrious sentiments (“Everything Is Awful,” “We All Die Young.”)

Musically, the new album quickly takes a wildly unanticipated turn.  As the chorus of “Once In My Life,” approaches, an outrageous, flanged-out drum fill prompts synthesizers, and the band suddenly goes full Flock of Seagulls. No clairvoyant could have seen this coming. Odd as it may seem, the ‘80s treatment befits the band. The Decemberists have always owed part of their appeal to their stimulatingly disorienting juxtaposition of antiquated folk melodies and Victorian language with modern instrumental elements and production. The retro, new wave aesthetic that conveys many of the new songs simply takes this free shuffling of era-specific signifiers to a whole new level. For a strain of music whose epic ambition lends itself to rambling tendencies, the ‘80s treatment has a grounding effect, imparting a newfound punchiness and glossy sheen. The result is a set of songs that sound more focused and readily accessible, yet still very much like The Decemberists. This is particularly evident on the second song, “Cutting Stone,” which finds Meloy in his usual lyrical domain. Such archaic wording as, “Wandering, I chanced upon / A wayward child lost alone,” delivered over cartoonishly throwback synth arpeggios, creates the same exhilarating sensation as the films of Baz Lurman, which match period pieces to contemporary soundtracks.  

It is an odd phenomenon how certain idiosyncratic styles of singing come to be in vogue, and proliferate by means of both coincidence and mimicry, until they become universally recognizable aesthetic signifiers. Consider, for example, the white rapper voice, which straddles the fine line between qualifying street cred and objectionable cultural appropriation. Another voice that has somehow become ubiquitous in music is that of Colin Meloy’s — call it the indie voice, if you will. Just listen to Parenthetical Girls or Death Cab For Cutie, and you’ll surely notice alter egos of the same generic singer. He sounds a bit like a prepubescent boy who has joined the school chorus with slightly more enthusiasm than singing talent. The vowel sounds are delivered in a loosely effeminate, or at least a decidedly “gentle” manner. There’s also a vaguely audible Anglophilia in the pronunciation of certain words, as if affected to convey greater seriousness. Melodic imperfections are worn like a badge of authenticity. And above all, there is a lot of whining. Perhaps it’s your cup of tea, but others will likely find themselves irritated by the vocals at certain moments, such as in “Starwatcher,” or “Tripping Alone,” in which passion and earnestness come across as inadequate compensation for want of musicality.

On the other hand, long-term devotees of the band, who might have trouble adjusting to the new musical directions, will appreciate Meloy’s singing as one way in which The Decemberists still sound like The Decemberists. Fortunately, there are plenty other ways too, for instance the Irish folk melodies of “Cutting Stone,” and the epic theatricality of “Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes.” And then, of course, there’s the camp lyricism that has always been a defining feature of The Decemberists. This band has a special place in the hearts of Lit majors. Much of the new subject matter is as rich and dense, steeped in folklore, and full of erudite references as fans will surely have come to expect. The aforementioned song alludes to the same early 19th century folk song, “Clyde Waters / The Drowned Lovers,” which served as the primary inspiration for the band’s 2009 album, “The Hazards of Love.” Elsewhere, Meloy is characteristically verbose and charmingly antiquated. Take “Tripping Along,” in which Meloy sings, “But just as I’m cusping on slumber and dumbing my eyes / What spin-twisting vision comes listing and jelly alike?” In a world where popular music is increasingly vulgar and artless, it is hard not to find such lyrics refreshingly delightful — even if just in amusement.  

Standout track, “We All Die Young,” is a circus stomp about reveling in nihilistic abandon. Children chant the titular line in cheery chorus atop festive burst of brass and goofy wah-wah sputters. The guitars shabbily skirt a monotonous drumbeat, and a strained saxophone feels its way around sloppy melodic figures, creating the sensation of shrugging it all off and going through the motions, laughing in the face of all life’s absurdity. “Everything Is Awful,” in which Meloy chirps “everything, everything,” along with choruses of gleeful la-la-la’s, expresses the same sentiment. Meloy wrote the song after the 2016 presidential election, and has described it as, “a rallying cry, or a blanket we can all share.” The nurturing instinct to offer a blanket also informs the album’s concluding, eponymous song, “I’ll Be Your Girl,” in which Meloy sings, “If you’re ever feeling less your time due / Like someone bereft and lied to / And you never need a guy to guide you / I’ll be your girl.” “I’ll be your guy,” would have worked just fine, and followed more logically, but the choice to say “girl” makes a world of difference; it’s an exaltation of feminine virtue in an environment of “toxic masculinity.”  And even though many of the new songs express frustration and despair, the choice to title the album, “I’ll Be Your Girl,” and to end on this note, suggests that even if “Everything Is Awful,” everything will ultimately be just fine.

I’ll Be Your Girl” is available March 16 on Apple Music.