Review Summary: The Decemberists have given us a near-perfect example of what modern music can and should be.
There’s no doubt about it. The Decemberists are one of the best indie bands around, and one of the most accomplished in the past decade. Their ability to so often flawlessly combine brilliant instrumentation and melodies with intriguing story-telling has delivered them a well-earned following over the years. 2005’s Picaresque was a key factor in catapulting the band into the huge success they’ve had over recent years. Marking The Decemberists’ third full-length effort, the album was the first release to display that the band knew what they wanted to do, and exactly how to do it. The results were marvelous, giving listeners nearly a full hour of beautiful, layered works of art to enjoy.
Lyrics have always been a monstrous strength of The Decemberists, and Picaresque features front man and songwriter Colin Meloy’s creativity at its best. Every track features something to dig through, such as an original story, abstract delivery of a message, or simply fantastic expression of feelings. There really isn’t any filler present on the album at all. Each song has significant meaning and carries a great deal of thought and emotion. Whether it’s sad tale of a disappointing athlete in “The Sporting Life,” the political protests of “Sixteen Military Wives,” or the gentle metaphors in “Of Angels and Angles,” there’s something lyrically on Picaresque for just about everyone.
The Decemberists also offer a wide range of musical moods on Picaresque. The instrumentation is breathtaking at many points in the album. There’s so much raw emotion worked into these compositions, and they’re all perfectly executed. The listener is always feeling exactly what the band wants them to feel because the lyrical concepts are always backed by just the right musical atmosphere. For example, at the end of “The Bagman’s Gambit,” the entire band gradually accelerates into a dark wall of chaotic strumming and pounding as Meloy eerily describes a character’s dream. All of this comes to an abrupt stop to leave room for the story to be finished with one last stanza crooned over a peaceful, straightforward acoustic guitar pattern. It’s moments like these that make the album chilling and, at times, heartbreaking.
Meloy has the perfect vocal tone and style for delivering the stories and melodies that he has so masterfully crafted. He has no problem covering the album’s array of emotions from somber, to joyous, to vengeful, sounding fantastic whether he’s belting at the top of his lungs or quietly singing low notes. Harmonies are prevalent in all the right places, and always give off a polished, pleasant sound. There are several tracks featuring a female vocalist complimenting Meloy’s voice splendidly, most notably “We Both Go Down Together” and “The Engine Driver,” the latter featuring Meloy at his best as he sings the last chorus with endearment that has an epic sound to it without being overbearing.
Six years and three albums later, Picaresque still stands as the most pivotal release for The Decemberists, establishing their style and winning over thousands of fans. It was the first sign of true promise and potential from an otherwise rather unknown band at the time of its release. It’s some of their best work, and I can’t think of anyone that could have pulled it off better. By providing complex lyrics that spark discussion, and conveying pure, strong emotions, The Decemberists have given us a near-perfect example of what modern music can and should be.