With their third album, Portland’s Decemberists continue on with their singular brand of highly literate, nautically-obsessed hybrid folk-rock. With their highbrow lyrics, unconventional arrangements and Colin Meloy’s distinctive nasal vocals, the sound of a Decemberists record is unmistakable, but Picaresque differs from the first two full-lengths in that it carries itself with a greater confidence than its predecessors. This is a record that struts home in costume after drama club, jocks in the hallway be damned.
Part of this can be attributed to the production of Death Cab’s Chris Walla, who makes Meloy’s voice and thus his words more up-front, but you also need to look at the success of last year’s The Tain single for explanation. Not many bands can pull off a 20-minute rock opera based on an ancient Irish folk tale, but the Decemberists did just that and the self-assuredness gained from that experience informs the new record. “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, in particular, echoes “The Tain” with its multi-act structured narrative and rotating vocalists.
From the gallop of “The Infanta” to the humour of “The Sporting Life” and the hushed beauty of album closer “Of Angels And Angles”, Picaresque runs the stylistic gamut and proves that the idiosyncratic wellspring from which Meloy draws most of his inspiration runs far deeper than one might have suspected when they released their debut record just three years ago. Even though his songs are for the most part tiny works of fiction set to music, he still infuses them with as much genuine warmth and affection as the most self-confessional of singer-songwriters. T’aint no irony or pretentiousness here, just a great album.
The Decemberists play The Phoenix with Willy Mason on May 21, tickets $15 at Rotate This, Soundscpaes, The Horseshoe and Ticketmaster.