At first listen, those unfamiliar to The Decemberists will be distracted by lead singer Colin Meloy’s piercing voice, which falls somewhere between a nasal drone and a full-fledged wail.
But listen harder, and one will find that Picaresque, the band’s third full-length album, sparkles like a jewel, rich with unconventional sound and lyrics that tear at one’s soul.
The songs that comprise this disc are ballads; not in the boy-band-song-slower-in-tempo-than-“I Want It That Way” sense, but as the traditional music class definition of a narrative poem intended to be a folk song. The instrumental side of the album pulls the listener into a European setting circa 1850, with a pleading violin in “We Both Go Down Together” and a feisty accordion in “The Mariner’s Song,” a nearly nine-minute track that was recorded during a live performance.
Meloy, who doubles as the Decemberists’ frontman and remarkably erudite songwriter, skillfully weaves poignancy through his lyrics in the tales of lost love that frequently pepper Picaresque. Most notable is the haunting “Eli, The Barrow Boy,” about a desperate, poverty-stricken lover which evokes the feel of a small-town ghost story. Another track with a tortured-heart protagonist is “The Engine Driver,” which is sure to speak to any lovelorn creative writing major.
Picaresque isn’t all heartbreak; on the lighter side are “The Sporting Life” and “Sixteen Military Wives,” marked by catchy tempos that manage to make their somewhat biting messages seem good-natured. For those indie-appreciators looking for something great, Picaresque has the whole package. The Decemberists have managed something rare: a melding of refreshing musicality, cerebral poetry and penetrating emotional appeal, all in one glorious compact disc.
Hannah Bae can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.