According to Internet staple [url]http://www.dictionary.com[/url], Picaresque has two definitions:
1. Of or involving clever rogues or adventurers.
2. Of or relating to a genre of usually satiric prose fiction originating in Spain and depicting in realistic, often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social degree living by his or her wits in a corrupt society.
In a way, both of these fit this album, the third release by Oregon indie band, The Decemberists. The album could easily be described as a musical adventure, and at times it satirises many things; life today, people's behaviour, as well as (dare I say it) the music that the band itself is capable of making. It's always been hard to classify the band you see, with their influences including folk music (in the manner of cult band Neutral Milk Hotel), but going beyond that to their music being genuinely rooted in old sea shanties and sailor songs. As you can imagine, this gives them an often mysterious air to their music, aided by oblique lyrics that can frequently be hard to decipher, thanks both to Colin Meloy's vocal style, and the fact that the lyrics really are rather different to what most other bands out there sing about. I mean, just look at these lyrics, taken from the first lines of the album's opening track, The Infanta
Here she comes in her palanquin
on the back of an elephant
on a bed made of linen and sequins and silk
all astride on her father's line
with the king and his concubines
This is a band that's firmly rooted in the tradition of telling stories with their lyrics, which is quite frankly a welcome break from a lot of the music that's around today. Although at times the lyrics here can be overblown, for those music fans willing to take the time to really to listen to what Meloy's actually going on about, a lot of what's contained here is far more interesting than it's given credit for, with views on the Internet typically polarised between "He's so
the new Bob Dylan", and "Dude, what's he on about?" Of course, were it not for the music itself, all the arguments about the lyrics would be completely immaterial. And here's where the great strength of The Decemberists lies. Thanks to the range of instruments contained on this album, including the conventional (guitars, bass, drums) and the unconventional (violin, saxophone), the band are capable of making a far greater range of noises than many other aspiring indie bands, meaning that while they do have a signature sound (given largely by the vocals), the music is frequently very layered, adding ethereal beauty to the songs contained here.
It's probably this more than anything else that has turned this into the best release by The Decemberists yet. Whereas before they used to go over the top in the eyes of many people, here they've learned to reign in their exuberance somewhat. Don't get me wrong, Picaresque
is still a frequently compelling listen, but on songs like Eli, The Barrowboy
; a stripped down song, featuring Meloy taking lead vocals over a lone acoustic guitar for the opening part of the track, the band let the music meander along its own course, rather than forcing things to happen every few minutes. Although it can sound lazy when bands consciously go for that effect, here it's simply wonderfully effective, creating a depressing piece of music that's compellingly moving. On songs like The Sporting Life
and The Infanta
though, the band's more ebullient side is very much to the fore. On the second of these the lyrics are far darker than the drum-powered sunny music, with the narrator singing about how he's disappointed his father, coach, and lost his girlfriend to the captain of the opposition team. Although bands frequently juxtapose happy music with truly morose lyrics (or vice versa), this song is a true example of how to do it best. The Infanta
is a far simpler song, with truly majestic music reflecting the song's topic, an infant princess, and how people flock to see her.
Leaving aside the greater range of styles which The Decemberists meet on this record, they also move forward in their general composition style as well. Taking The Bagman's Gambit
as an example, not only is it 7 minutes long, but it also builds and builds from a slow start into a true indie anthem. While the band have given hints that they're capable of making songs like this on previous albums, they've never really come close, and therefore for any fan of the band it's obviously pleasing to see them finally do it here. That's not even the longest song here, with The Mariner's Revenge Song
claiming that accolade. I've already said that The Decemberists draw heavily on sea shantys and naval songs as influences, and it doesn't take a genius to see that the title of this song implies that influence particularly strongly. The lyrics also are all about the effects of a naval life, and how they have destroyed a family, even after they escape the sea for "the belly of a whale". The difference being that the whale is a metaphor for domesticity. You remember what I was saying about The Decemberists being ever so slightly weird? The midsection in this song where the music effectively stops leaving female vocals gorgeously crooning about revenge is marvellously chilling as well, and is one of the many minor touches on the album that you don't even think about when listening to it, but which leaves a great impression on anyone listening to it.
However, there's simply no doubt about what the best song on here is. In an age where every man and his dog is making his own musically political statement, few protest songs are as dazzingly brilliant as Sixteen Military Wives
. Diverging greatly from just about anything that The Decemberists have ever even hinted at releasing, it encompasses condemnation of America ("America does if America says it's so"), TV ("the anchor person on TV goes la-di-da-di-da-di-di-di-di-di-da", and celebrity culture among other things, set over sharply jaunty music that builds into a full blown orchesteral crescendo towards the end. Forget all the fuss over American Idiot
, Rock The Vote, REM's latest album and all that. I haven't heard a protest song this good this decade, and I can see it being a long time until I hear another one this special. Dam
n, the album's basically worth buying for this alone.
The one factor that prevents this album getting 4.5/5 are the vocals. Like many indie fans, I personally love them. I think that Colin Meloy has a wonderfully evocative voice, and that his vocal style backs up his storytelling lyrics as well as anyone could do. Having said that, many people disagree. While that's inevitable to a point (after all, personal opinions need to continue existing I guess), his singing does attract a fair share of criticism, and as such, I can't honestly say that absolutely everybody should check this out. Having said that though, I'm now going to be really perverse and tell you to do so anyway. You see, this is a special album. It takes the best aspects from folk, alternative and indie music, and puts them all together in one delicious melting pot for you all to enjoy. Good storytelling? Check. Beautiful melodies and breezy music? Check. Vocals that convey real emotions while giving you a feeling that there's a greater point behind the music? Again, a most resounding check. For anyone who likes alternative music, this is essential to check out. For anyone who doesn't really, or who is looking to get more into alternative stuff, compared to a lot of albums that get 4.5/5 or 5/5 around here, this is the harshest 4/5 you're going to see in a long time.