CD Review: The Decemberists – Picaresque

I am seriously developing an unhealthy obsession with the Decemberists. It all started innocently enough about 8 months ago. Ledge suggested we go see them performing with the Unicorns at the Night & Day. I was certain I’d heard one or two of their songs and I was somehow convinced that they were another of those bands that want so desperately to be Will Oldham that Ledge loves. But the Unicorns were charming enough so I agreed to go.

Now, if you’re familiar with the Decemberists, you’ll know how mistaken I was, as I was delighted to discover. They are more a fusion of indie rock, English folk and Americana which they combine together to create some of the most captivating and unusual songs I’ve heard in a long time. The gig was, needless to say, marvellous, probably helped by singer Colin Meloy’s obvious obsession with Morrissey. So we immediately purchased both Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty the Decemberists and took them away for perusal. Apart from loading the latter onto my MP3 player I really didn’t think much more of it, having about a billion other things to which I could listen.

Several months down the line we booked a holiday to Toronto and were delighted to discover the Decemberists were playing while we were there. So we bought tickets. This was the point at which I realised that maybe I should start listening to their albums. That and Ledge had acquired a copy of the charming 5 Songs EP and a copy of Colin Meloy’s rather remarkable collection of Morrssey covers. All I could think was, “Why haven’t I been playing these albums non-stop since we bought them?”

Maybe it’s the wistful depictions of childhood, or Meloy’s odd obsession with Victoriana and sailors, or his perfect voice, but this band cover territory probably not traversed since Herman Mellville and Charles Dickens. Furthermore, they do it with such charm and ability to get you singing along that I find it absolutely impossible not to love them, and believe me, I did try at the start, just to be difficult.

And this all brings us to their most recent creation, the wonderfully vivid Picaresque. This album is all the best things about the Decemberists condensed into one small package. It has soaring tales of mismatched 19th century love-leading-to-suicide, revenge on the high seas, giant whales, failed teenage athletes, and cold war espionage. It has accordians, violins, horns and some of the best harmonies on earth. And, it has some of the most original and triumphant songwriting you’re ever likely to encounter.

Just to give an indcation of just how much Picaresque has won me over: I haven’t listened to anything but the Decemberists in about 5 days. I’ve been going to sleep with their songs running through my head and waking up with their songs in my head. Yesterday morning I was walking around the house humming “The Infanta” and when I put on my MP3 player it was already cued up. Normally this non-stop echo in my head would have me tearing my hair out but I’m enjoying it. If I could have the album permanently beamed into my cerebellum I’d probably do it (although I suspect I would eventually regret it). Bands this unique and this captivating come along only rarely and we should take advantage of their genius when they do. So, to heed my own advice, as soon as I post this, I’m on my way downstairs to slot Picaresque into the hi-fi and superglue the lid shut.

Now I’m not sure whether this can really be classed as a review, but it does consist of the more coherent parts of my thoughts on the Decemberists. If you’ve not heard them, you really should. If you have, then you won’t need convincing anyway.

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