The Decemberists — I’ll Be Your Girl
March 16, 2018
Portland, Oregon / Capitol Records
Whenever the Decemberists announce a new release, there’s cause for anticipation, although not necessarily for the right reasons.
Since 2002, prolific indie rockers the Decemberists have released a crop of projects that I love: the grim cluster of vignettes that make up Castaways and Cutouts comes to mind, as well as the indie darling Picaresque. And I will always defend The Hazards of Love as a fantastic rock opera.
One of the defining characteristics of the Decemberists’ discography is the anachronistic tales penned by singer-songwriter Colin Meloy, who tells the tales of oft-hypothetical characters from history. Like Bruce Springsteen but for the 18th century. To name but a few, Colin has fit in the shoes of a chimney sweep, a male prostitute, a Nazi, the husband of a magical crane, and the daughter of a woman who died in childbirth.
Unfortunately, this quality of the band’s music has been less and less prominent on recent albums. 2011’s The King is Dead didn’t feel quite so much like the accounts of history’s laypeople as it did like excerpts from Colin Meloy’s LARP sessions. And their last LP, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, wasn’t really a return to form either; not only did the album’s themes feel more short-sighted than ever, but the writing wasn’t always there to hold these songs up anymore.
As low as the bar is for this new album, I’m still not expecting all that much from it. I’ve accepted that Colin and company are well over the hill at this point, so now it’s just a matter of seeing if this contemporary indie fodder path leads to something more interesting.
As of I’ll Be Your Girl, the Decemberists have pretty much strayed from the path entirely, but this isn’t exactly a positive. A majority of the cuts on this album somehow find themselves even further under the already low standards that the band are working with.
To start things off gently, we have the handful of songs that are simply mediocre. “Tripping Along” ends about as lifelessly as it begins, coasting along on some guitar chords and synth embellishments that are so sleepy that I have no interest in whatever Colin is singing about over them. I can only recount the incessant “tripping-tripping-tripping-tripping” refrains, which are all I need to deduce that I don’t care for this track.
I have no idea why the band chose “I’ll Be Your Girl” as the title track, because it’s little more than an insipid acoustic cut tacked onto the end of the record. I guess it’s kind of funny that Colin is playing with the gender-specific platitudes of a lot of love songs, but there’s not much in the way of a satisfying conclusion to this concept, nor as a closer to the album. Actually, maybe an unfulfilling end to this album is the perfect closer; I can’t really tell.
“Cutting Stone” is a little more palatable with its subdued dance groove and fluttering synth keys, but there’s very little in the way of song progression to keep it interesting. I do enjoy the lyrics, though, as Colin sings about using this cutting stone with increasing liberality, going so far as to cut in half a child that he finds wandering around.
Wandering, I chanced upon
A wayward child lost anon
And when he laid across my chest
My cutting stone, it did the rest
And these are just the tracks that I found to be subpar. Worse still is the aptly named “Everything Is Awful”, which is comprised almost entirely on that very refrain. I understand that the raucous rock instrumental is supposed to juxtapose the depressing subject matter for comedic value, but if I wanted to listen to something this insincere and melodramatic, I’d dig up my old Simple Plan CDs.
Against all odds, the song “Sucker’s Prayer” manages to be even less endearing and even more tasteless, as Colin sings about wanting to kill himself by stuffing rocks in his pants and wading into a pond. I shouldn’t even have to mention the questionable guitar interludes to convince you that this song is bad.
I wanna love somebody but I don’t know how
I’ve been so long lonely and it’s getting me down
I wanna throw my body in the river and drown
I wanna love somebody but I don’t know how
Yeah, me too, buddy.
As far as bad production goes on this album, “We All Die Young” sounds like an unfinished demo track. Between the romping percussion, the buzzing synths, and that shameful horn interlude, I have no idea why anyone thought this was acceptable to put on a record. The only explanation I can think of is maybe this song works better as a drunken crowd-pleaser á la “Tubthumping”, but I have no desire to test that hypothesis, nor to listen to this song ever again.
Even though over half of the track listing is a straight write-off for me, the remaining five songs here are far more tolerable. The galloping drums and urgent vocals on “Your Ghost” remind me of one of the Decemberists’ greatest album openers, “The Infanta”. Jenny Conlee’s “na na na na na” refrain does get a little grating at times, but it does suit the daunting nature of this track very well.
I also cannot deny that the opening track “Once in My Life” won me over with repeat listens. It does suffer from a lot of the same flaws as other cuts here—namely the scant lyrical content—but it is a compelling introduction, especially as the electronic flourishes bring the song to its triumphant conclusion.
The song “Starwatcher” is one of the biggest highlights here, with its militant drum beat and one of Colin’s most authoritative vocal performances on the album. This is probably the only song here where I wish it were longer, since the ending feels a little abrupt, but it’s reassuring to know that the band are still able to pull off more powerful moments like this one.
“Severed” is definitely one of the band’s more successful attempts at blending live instrumentation with electronics since they wrote “The Perfect Crime #2”. I love the lurking synths underneath Colin’s spiteful vocals, singing from the perspective of a demagogue as they dismantle the political landscape under the noses of their voters. Hint hint.
I alone am the answer
I alone will make wrongs right
But in order to root out the cancer
It’s got to be kept from the sunlight
I’m allied to the winter
But don’t you get clever
Don’t you get clever
My favourite song on the entire album, though, is the 8-minute two-parter: “Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes”.
For those of you who haven’t read up on Slavic folklore in a while (keep up), a rusalka is the restless spirit of a woman who died by drowning, and now seeks vengeance by luring unsuspecting men to their own watery graves with her beauty. “Rusalka, Rusalka” comes in by way of mournful piano which is as entrancing as the rusalka herself. Then start pounding these thundering drums as our protagonist sings the praises of this water nymph, walking towards the water.
And now we are wed, the water our bed
And bank to bank property lake
And you are my wild-eyed rusalka, my river bride
Drag me down, take me away
And here we will lie, you and I, ‘neath the cold, dark sky
“The Wild Rushes” is, in turn, the eye of the storm, as the heavy instrumentation breaks open to allow for this more sultry guitar passage, culminating in this heavenly climax that washes over you as quickly as it clears away, leaving nothing in the wake of this perfect storm.
All that being said, though, I was definitely right to be sceptical about this album, because it’s probably the band’s least consistent yet. There’s very little here that I would consider essential to the Decemberists discography, and I don’t really see them bouncing back at this point, either. It’s unfortunate that they’re choosing to stick to this new style, because there’s not much on this album that I couldn’t see other artists do better.
All we can do at this point is split their catalogue in two and forget that anything post-The Hazards of Love ever happened. Yes, we’re keeping The Hazards of Love.
FAVOURITE TRACKS: Severed / Starwatcher / Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes