Ever since they emerged onto the national music scene in 2002, The Decemberists discography has swung back and forth like a pendulum between the band’s core proficiency (brainy, tuneful folk songs) and its farther ranging interests.
Albums like 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts and 2011’s The King is Dead sit on one side, packed with beautiful acoustic guitars and Colin Meloy’s distinctive combo of melody, wordplay and tone. On the other side sit releases like 2004’s The Tain EP (a labyrinthine, 18-minute epic tale), 2009’s The Hazards of Love (a foray into heavy prog-rock) and now, the band’s newest album, I’ll Be Your Girl, which supplements The Decemberists’ sound with dusky, synth-colored vibes.
Meloy has acknowledged the need to shake things up for his band’s eighth studio album, and that instinct was correct: 2015’s What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World was the first full-length in the catalog that felt a bit Decemberists-by-numbers. For I’ll Be Your Girl, the shake-up was multi-faceted: The band hired John Congleton, best known for his work with St. Vincent, to produce. They poured all their folk power into Offa Rex, a collaborative project with singer-songwriter Olivia Chaney, clearing their palette for something new. Meloy wrote noticeably shorter songs. And collectively, they decided to explore their common interest in glam, Roxy Music, new wave and New Order.
The results are mostly successful; occasionally a strange sound seems shoehorned into a perfectly good Decemberists song. Opening track “Once In My Life” starts out as a classic Meloy strum-and-singalong, but with the chorus comes a simple, overcast synth line that sounds imported straight from an ‘80s film soundtrack. It works well with Meloy’s plaintive lyrics: “For once in my life, could just something go right?”
That’s just the first of the many grievances that form a thread on I’ll Be Your Girl. “Severed” pairs a set of vengeful threats with a buzzy synth arpeggio for an unnerving effect. “Everything Is Awful” attempts to offset the world’s current state of despair with a jaunty pace, a choir of angels (including Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor Kean) and a cathartic wordless coda. And “We All Die Young” turns the titular lament into an arena-rock anthem, complete with a weird saxophone solo and a chorus of children. It is an arrangement that perhaps worked better on paper than in practice. (The same could be said for “Cutting Stone,” a classic Olde-Tyme Meloy’s Tale that doesn’t quite jibe with its synth accompaniment.)
In the middle of I’ll Be Your Girl, however, is a string of songs that come together nicely, including “Tripping Along,” an ambling, lustful lullaby that recalls the band’s Picaresque era, and “Sucker’s Prayer,” a capable country-rock number with a luscious chorus. And then, just before the closing title track—a gentle love song Meloy could probably write in his sleep—The Decemberists squeeze out one eight-plus-minute performance that’s actually two songs run together: “Rusalka, Rusalka” and “The Wild Rushes.” Both are stories of temptation and death based on a Russian mermaid myth, and both are beautiful in very different ways. One listen to them bound together will immediately transport any longtime Decemberists fan back to the band’s recorded peak (so far), its 2006 major label debut, The Crane Wife.
In the end, “Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes” is a vivid reminder of the unique thing The Decemberists do better than just about any other band, and the rest of I’ll Be Your Girl doesn’t quite reach that same height. But the rest of I’ll Be Your Girl is also evidence that Meloy and his mates are willing and able explorers who fear stagnation more than risk-taking. Those are great qualities for a band to have. The hyper-literate historical epics will be there when the pendulum swings back that way.