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New Decemberists album escapes “by-the-numbers” approach 

click to enlarge Colin Meloy and colleagues: “Everything is a little bit mysterious.” - HOLLY ANDRES
  • Holly Andres
  • Colin Meloy and colleagues: “Everything is a little bit mysterious.”
The irony of the opening track on The Decemberists album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is not lost on the band’s frontman and main songwriter Colin Meloy. The song, entitled “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” finds its narrator telling fans that, as much as he realizes they don’t want his band to change, he still feels artists need to change.

Ironically, the 2015 album was not a musical departure for the Portland, Oregon-based band. Its songs basically maintained the kind of acoustic-laced blend of English folk and rock that had become the Decemberists’ signature over a career that to that point included seven albums and spanned 15 years.

“Yeah, that’s the funny thing about that record,” Meloy observes one album later. “I feel like it established this thesis, [but] it’s sort of just an imagined work and a different performer saying that. So it’s funny to me, in retrospect, that you have this pronouncement at the beginning of the record, and then what follows was fairly by-the-numbers, at least at that point, Decemberists songs — not to throw that record under the bus or say there’s anything wrong with by-the-numbers Decemberists songs.”

On the new Decemberists album I’ll Be Your Girl, which was released two months ago on Capitol Records, the band does exactly what “The Singer Addresses His Audience” promised by giving their sound a notable makeover and throwing a few new wrinkles into the mix.
“It’s not that I necessarily felt that a change had to happen,” Meloy says. “But I feel like we were kind of compelled to do something, if not for any other reason, to make the process more exciting and more interesting to us. We don’t really necessarily know the outcome as we’re working on it, where everything is a little bit mysterious and we’re liable to take big risks, which is what I feel we’ve done here.”

The most notable shift comes with the inclusion of synthesizer as a prominent instrument on tracks like “Severed,” “Once in My Life” and “Cutting Stone.” It’s an instrument rarely featured this way on earlier albums, one that suggests echoes of Roxy Music and ’80s synth-pop.

This isn’t an influence one would have expected from the Decemberists, but Meloy says the music that inspires him isn’t always obvious in the band’s sound. “The Cure and New Order were as important to me as any other bands when I was in high school,” he explains. “I credit the Jesus & Mary Chain for making me a musician. Psychocandy (the Jesus & Mary Chain’s 1985 debut album) is the reason I play guitar and write music. You can’t really hear that in the music that we do, but to me it’s an undeniable thing.”

Other new songs that break stylistic ground include “We All Die Young,” which suggests ’70s glam rockers T. Rex. “Everything Is Awful” is a delightful pop tune accented with playful female backing vocals that flit and flutter around Meloy’s lead vocal, transforming what otherwise might have been a fairly straight-ahead arrangement into something far more fun and multi-faceted. Female backing vocals also enhance “Your Ghost,” a galloping rocker that takes an unexpected twist with its keyboard solo.

Despite all that, the album is still unmistakably recognizable for fans of the band. As Meloy puts it: “I don’t think we could ever remove the Decemberists from us.”

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