The Decemberists : As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again

The Decemberists As It Ever Was review

The Decemberists aren’t doing so well. You’d be excused if you hadn’t noticed. After all, the Portland band is known for a lot of things—folkloric storytelling, obscure instrumentation, esoteric tendencies—but rarely have they been described as bleakly misanthropic. That began to change with their bilaterally titled 2015 record What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World and continued well into their last record I’ll Be Your Girl, an album that starts with lead singer Colin Meloy operatically asking the question, “Oh, for once in my life, could just something go right?” I can’t, of course, confirm or deny whether something has indeed gone right, but if their latest double-LP epic As It Ever Was, So It Will Begin is any indication, the outlook isn’t so great.  

If you were to pose an argument to this thesis, it would probably involve the fact that The Decemberists, and Colin Meloy specifically, are clearly gifted storytellers and so literalizing everything within a Decemberists record is a fool’s errand. That might be true. As It Ever Was, So It Will Begin includes your usual rogues’ gallery of ne’er-do-wells, helpless lovers and irascible ghosts, but there is a tonal shift that, when taken as a whole, is hard to ignore. “The world’s all wrong,” sings Meloy on the album’s otherwise pop-formulated opener “The Burial Ground.” It’s a perfect example of their ability to wrap even the bleakest sentiment in something otherwise rousing and upbeat. Even as longtime contemporary James Mercer (The Shins) comes in toward song’s end for a soaring harmony, Meloy is still longing to escape “these maladies in my head.” The more baroque aspects of the record largely serve the same purpose. Songs like “Oh No!”, “The Reapers,” “Long White Veil” and “The Black Maria” might seem like arcane flights of fancy, but the despondency is too overwhelming to be accidental. Death might come in many forms throughout As It Ever Was, So It Will Begin but it is always right around the corner, haunting the characters and the band at every turn. 

Whether The Decemberists as an entity are confronting death is, too, an appropriate thing to consider. As It Ever Was, So It Will Begin comes over six years after its predecessor and the news around the record seems to indicate that its existence was far from guaranteed. In the intervening years, Meloy has truly embraced multi-hyphenate status, highlighted by a successful run of children’s books created alongside his wife. This record marks The Decemberists’ ninth in over 22 years, so it’s fair to question how much more Meloy and the rest of the band have to give to the endeavor. The hour-plus runtime notwithstanding, As It Ever Was, So It Will Begin feels like, if not a swan song, than an attempt to properly catalog the winding history of one of indie-folk’s founding stalwarts. The Decemberists have always been The Decemberists, but it’s pretty invigorating to see them attempt to wrangle the many sonic and thematic flourishes they toyed with throughout their time into one single album, whether that’s the country-tinged wistfulness of something like “Long White Veil” or the cryptic storytelling of Crane Wife-era yarns like “William Fitzwilliam.”

All this comes to a head with one of the few songs on As It Ever Was, So It Will Begin I’ve yet to mention. The 2009 pro-rock concept record The Hazards Of Love is few people’s favorite version of The Decemberists and yet it is this version with which they choose to end their latest. “Joan in the Garden,” a kind of veiled Joan Of Arc retelling, runs no less than 19 minutes and features long stretches of nearly empty tape before erupting into a full-throated finale. It’s discursive, earnest, and a little bit silly, all things that, for better or worse, always have, and always will, define The Decemberists. 

Label: Thirty Tigers

Year: 2024

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The Decemberists As It Ever Was review

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