Rooted in fanciful, mystical folk, the Decemberists have long been influenced by the whimsical and orchestral worlds conjured by the likes of Robyn Hitchcock and Richard Thompson. Yet, over its nearly two-decade career, the Portland, Oregon-based band has explored everything from sea shanties to indie-rock ditties. Here, on its eighth studio effort, the act streamlines its sound a bit, alternately focusing on its love for R.E.M. while bringing to the fore previously unexplored new-wave flourishes.
Tonally, I’ll Be Your Girl counts as one of the Decemberists’ more diverse efforts, seeing as the work moves from quiet to loud with little to no warning. The underlying attitude—one of a vague frustration with the state of the world—holds it together. While not a protest record, it’s not escapist, either, making the set fit for playing when the parents visit. Why? The Decemberists are grounded in tradition and still the group’s left-leaning message remains too subtle to offend.
A reunion season of “Parks and Recreation.” Moments on the album bring unexpected humor, but its ideas and sounds are tastefully clever, with a hint of progressivism.
Long before The Shape of Water won the Academy Award for Best Picture, the Decemberists were crafting stories about humans falling in love with fantastical creatures (see 2009’s The Hazards of Love). Yet from the opening moments of I’ll Be Your Girl, it’s clear the Colin Meloy-led collective has its sights set on more true-to-life concerns. The lead-off “Once in My Life” conjures the sense of being overwhelmed and runs with it. All the while, Depeche Mode-like synthesizers make it obvious the Decemberists aren’t out to wallow. This is the Decemberists party, and they can cry if they want to.
The group also throws a few punches. “Severed” mixes disco beats, throbbing grooves, and some rather sharp guitars as it skewers an egotistical leader (“I alone am the answer,” sings Meloy, as if giving a speech before thousands). The acoustic guitars on “Starwatcher” possesses a frustrated bite, leading to the song’s final booming, militaristic moments and message of resistance. “Your Ghost” comes on as a folk-rock rumble that seems to hint at haunting an enemy. “We All Die Young” feels like a sports anthem—only it may be the only arena-rock song to reference a Union solider and the horrors of war. Then there’s “Everything Is Awful,” which feels as silly as a song from the old Jim Henson puppet show “Fraggle Rock” even as it ultimately seeks comfort in misery.
I’ll Be Your Girl only slows when the Decemberists start to sound more like their old selves, and in turn, less politically invigorated. “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes” takes inspiration from a Slavic folk tale about a siren-like creature and stretches out for more than eight minutes. While the band effortlessly shifts from a mournful piano to seafaring folk to metal-laced guitars, the journey into the supernatural appears out of place in what had been a relatively direct record. Likewise, the sleepy “Tripping Along,” which lacks the modern sheen of the album’s better tracks.
But the good far outweighs the band, and the Decemberists no doubt deserve some slack. With the stress of the world today, the ensemble can be forgiven for taking a few moments to break from reality.
Capitol’s delightfully quiet pressing comes housed in a relatively thick, colorfully appointed gatefold sleeve. Co-producer John Congleton takes advantages of the synthesizers and places them up in the mix. While the overall sound could stand a slightly more acoustic bent, longtime fans will likely not harken for the lower-fidelity presentations on the band’s early albums. To paraphrase the refrain on “Starwatcher,” the sonics here do more than just hold their ground.
Last chance to change your mind...