The Decemberists naming their album Picaresque is akin to Slayer naming an album Evil or The Streets naming an album Overrated. It seems too easy; a bit too obvious, in fact. Looking back at their previous albums with songs of Turkish prostitutes, French legionnaires, daydreaming ne’er-do-wells and homoerotic soldiers, such roguish louts could only be blessed with a title such as Picaresque. And the characters on the Portland group’s latest don’t seem to have gotten any less whimsical in the slightest. Here we have the Barrow Boy, the Mariner, the Engine Driver, The Bagman and several other fun and imaginative types. In fact, there are even several photographs in the CD jacket that depict the band members portraying various characters from the songs. How’s that for picaresque?
The music, however, is less like the band’s previous high-seas singalongs and more like the source material of Colin Meloy’s recent Morrissey covers EP. Yup, this album sounds a lot more influenced by The Mozzer and his Mancunian band of old, The Smiths. The opening track, “The Infanta,” is a fast-paced five-minute epic, peculiarly similar to “The Queen is Dead,” but lyrically fits in alongside the band’s most fanciful work, with its description of the titular urchin: “Here she comes in her palaquin/on the back of an elephant/On a bed made of linen and sequins and silk.” The following track, “We Both Go Down Together” is arguably the band’s take on “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” as Meloy sings of two doomed souls over a melancholy, string-laden melody. “The Sporting Life” bounces along with trademark Rourke/Joyce rhythms, though the subject matter of this tune is a shameful adolescent athletic display, something that everybody can relate to at some point in their lives, not just a self-deprecating Brit.
“From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)” is simple and quiet, though more reminiscent of the seafaring tales of the band’s debut Castaways and Cutouts, as Meloy sings a few short verses of his love lost at sea. The bands first chosen single, “16 Military Wives,” is also one of the most upbeat and enjoyable tunes on the record. Over a soulful bed of Rhodes and horns, Meloy displays his verbal mathematics, singing “17 company men/out of which only 12 will make it back again/Sergeant sends a letter to 5 military wives/as tears drip down from 10 little eyes.” During the chorus, however, the song reveals its political cynicism, with Meloy & Co. chanting “Because America can and America can’t say no/And America does if America says it’s so.” Where was this song on Future Soundtrack for America?
“The Engine Driver” recalls more of an influence by the band’s eighties heroes, such as The Smiths or The Go-Betweens, but also sounds somewhat similar to “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect,” a standout from the band’s first record. Here, Meloy switches identities in similar fashion, jumping from engine driver to country lineman to writer to moneylender, whilst sharing soaring harmonies of “If you don’t love me let me go” with his bandmates. The nearly nine-minute “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is the only distinct moment in which The Decemberists sound almost absurdly picaresque, like an extended take on their bawdy sea chantey, “A Cautionary Tale.” But in the end, the album closes with the serene ballad “Of Angels and Angles,” a sweet love song that shows a much straighter side of the band.
While it may seem redundant to title a Decemberists album Picaresque, on this effort, we curiously find the band heading into a direction that’s just as imaginative, though not nearly as quirky. While it might be a stretch to call this the band’s most ambitious work (it could easily be said about any of their full-lengths), it is an exciting new chapter for the band, and it contains some of the best songs of their career.
Belle and Sebastian – The Boy With the Arab Strap
Beulah – The Coast is Never Clear
The Smiths – The Queen is Dead
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.