The Decemberists Remain Distinctive on As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again

The Portland band’s ninth album features Colin Meloy’s sharpest songwriting in more than a decade.

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The Decemberists Remain Distinctive on As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again

It’s been six years since the Decemberists last released an album, a period that you can imagine frontman Colin Meloy describing as “a lustrum and twelvemonth.” It’s the longest interval between LPs so far for the Portland band, and the break seems to have served as something of a reset—one that has resulted in the longest album the group has made to date. It’s also one of their best. As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again boasts Meloy’s sharpest songwriting in more than a decade, on songs that step away from the synth-forward approach of the band’s 2018 album I’ll Be Your Girl in favor of the chamber-pop sound that characterized the Decemberists’ earlier work.

Returning to a previous musical approach doesn’t mean rehashing old ideas. On the contrary, As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again sounds fresh and focused, with tight-knit songs that are by turns playful and pointed. After a period of burnout and doubt about the band’s future, Meloy is in peak form on lyrics that often feel haunted, by ghosts that are sometimes allegorical and sometimes literal as the band moves between baroque story-songs and more sober-minded reflections on mortality. The former style has long been the Decemberists’ trademark, cemented over the years by selections from Picaresque in 2005, much of The Crane Wife in 2006 and the entirety of The Hazards of Love, the proggy album-length fairytale the band released in 2009.

Meloy and company revisit the musical epic here with “Joan in the Garden.” It’s a 19-minute crescendo that builds in intensity until Meloy is practically shouting his vocals into a swirling storm of guitars, synthesizers and crashing cymbals that collapses in upon itself halfway through the track. After a section consisting mostly of ambient instrumental sounds and eerie snippets of voices, guitars come roaring back in to bring the song to a galloping, operatic finish that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Rush album in the late ’70s.

Most of As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again has less drama and more hooks. With bright, jangling guitars, boxy drums and a call-and-response chorus flush with prismatic vocal harmonies, opener “Burial Ground” is an earworm that’s impossible to shake. Elsewhere, swooning pedal steel guitar and Jenny Conlee’s backing vocals turn “Long White Veil” into a ghost story more sorrowful than spooky. “The Black Maria” is the reverse, as Meloy likens the inevitability of death to a visit from the secret police: “Can’t you hear their boots in the hall? / Answer your name when they call,” he sings in close harmony with Conlee, backed by acoustic guitar and spectral, droning horns.

Those are just a few of the different musical approaches the Decemberists take on As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again. It’s an album full of songs that are distinct from each other, yet of a piece, with a title that feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy. After a fallow period, one of indie-rock’s most rewarding bands has found its way back, and in better shape than before.

Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013. His work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and Pitchfork, among other publications. He writes Freak Scene, a newsletter about music in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut.

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