The Decemberists new release, “I’ll Be Your Girl” evinces a notable departure from their trademark Folk infused Alternative sound. Their eighth album released on March 16th follows their remarkable 2015 release “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”. That release reflected the band surviving a number of challenges including the most daunting one, band member Jenny Conlee’s brush with cancer. With “I’ll Be Your Girl” the goal was to force the band outside their comfort zone and record what would transpire. In keeping with that ethos the band changed their recording studio and went with a different producer, John Congleton, along with utilizing a more collaborative songwriting effort. What resulted is an oft-times inspiring effort that attempts to balance the new sonic direction with their storied evocative character narratives and splendid sonic arrangements.
It becomes immediately apparent that the band has taken a left turn from their prior works with just a glimpse at the Sgt. Peppers inspired psychedelic cover art. The first track Once in My Life starts out with the usual acoustic Decemberists flourish and then explodes into a wide panoramic 80’s synth fest. This sonic effect is combined with a New Order bass line. The mantra-like lyric, “Oh for once in my life could something go right” pulls in the listener with the universal sentiment of that request. The whole track might be unsettling for longtime fans of the band, but for the instant recognition of band leader Colin Meloy’s vocal which tethers the song to the Decemberists’ prior work. The track leaves the listener wondering how the album will unfold.
Where the first track provides an effective gateway into the album the next song Cutting Stone is a bit perplexing. Where Once in My Life seemed to flourish with the new approach, Cutting Stone feels forced. The song would have been better served with a classic folk/alt. an application which the Decemberists can do effortlessly. The heft of the lyrics and emotions gets lost in the synths and percussion watering down the powerful impact of the song. It is a situation of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”. This same thing transpires with Severed the first single off the release which is a lukewarm track at best. This tribute to New Order is novel but would be more distinctive if there were fewer songs on the album that were not also synth/bass fests, less would have been more. Severed seemed a pale imitation of what James Mercer’s Broken Bells project does better. Cutting Stone and Severed raised the question that often seems to be a frequent conundrum for established artists; is change always necessary or does it too often become a self-indulgent navel gazing exercise? Thankfully the songs that follow mitigate what was a growing disappointment in the release.
Saving the day is Star Watcher a stadium romper loaded with drama which offers a lot to like. The track is a better blend of acoustic guitar/acapella/ and synth rock than what was attempted on the prior songs. Tripping Alone is another engaging offering with its pulled around interstellar folk infusion. The solemn darkness of the lyric focuses on our no brakes hold the race to oblivion delivering the powerful lyrical impact The Decemberists are aces at producing. Your Ghost provides another injection of energy with its galloping percussion and 60’s pop tinge. The rollicking Everything is Awful is a tongue in cheek anthem that will be a winner in concert. It is a companion to Once in My Life with the shared sentiment that things are going the wrong direction both in a personal sense and in the world at large. It is laden with hyperbole squared but makes for a great song.
For longtime fans of The Decemberists, the payoff track of the album is Rusalka, Rusalka, The Wild Rushes. Here is an exemplar of what the band does best with this evocative and beautiful song. This epic is one of the band’s best works and is simply stunning. Don’t let the 8 plus minute length discourage you from giving it a try as it is transcendent and worth the price of the album just for this selection. There is a mighty genius in the structure of the track with much to admire lyrically and sonically. The finale and title track, I’ll be Your Girl, is a fitting end to the album with a lovely duet between Jenny Conlee and Meloy.
On I’ll be Your Girl The Decemberists certainly depart from their past formula. That past formulation has won them a legion of admirers and time will tell how established fans take to this album. In this reinvention of the band’s sonic direction, they have attempted to walk a tightrope many established bands attempt to accomplish. On the first listen the result is a somewhat uneven effort, but not completely without merit. The problem is that at times the style is overwhelming the substance, especially on The Cutting Stone. By comparison a track like “Rusalka…” will live on in the band’s stellar legacy long after we forget which album it came off, it is that amazing.
The Decemberists output can often make for an initially demanding listen and seem less than approachable, but given time the songs grow on the listener. They are a band whose songs frequently resonate long after you hear them, think The King is Dead, and they become more beloved over time. I think there is a good chance that occurs again with this release. I’ll be Your Girl is not a home run but a solid double in their discography.