The Decemberists trade their acoustic, folky sound for a more involved, electronic aesthetic.
The Decemberists have never shied away from dark subject matter, but that darkness was usually fictional, or at least came from stories that took place much further in the past. With “I’ll Be Your Girl,” the band’s newest album, lead singer and primary songwriter Colin Meloy breaks tradition and embraces the influence of recent real-world events. The album has less to do with suicidal lovers and chimney sweeps and more to do with political resistance and Donald Trump. But “I’ll Be Your Girl” stands apart from The Decemberists’ previous discography not just in lyrics, but also in the entire sound.
The Decemberists have been around for a long time — 17 years, to be exact, and “I’ll Be Your Girl” shows a marked attempt to come up with something new. One of the ways in which it differs from the rest of the band’s discography is the change in producers: rather than recording with Tucker Martin, who has been working with them since 2006, The Decemberists enlisted producer John Congleton, known for working with decidedly non-Decemberists-sounding artists like St. Vincent and Modest Mouse. “I’ll Be Your Girl” trades accordions for synths, and while some fans might worry that this may detract from the classic Decemberists sound, the album emerges as less of a diversion and more of an expansion of the band’s boundaries.
Meloy confronts dark themes with melodic glee, jauntily singing the catchiest song on the album, “Everything is Awful,” with gusto, and bringing in a chorus of children to sing the titular lyrics of “We All Die Young.” Meloy’s fatalistic lyricism set to snappy tunes is reminiscent of the current nihilism that can be found on pretty much any corner of the Internet. In fact, perhaps the most accurate summation of the album is as Meloy describes it: “an apocalyptic dance party.”
Of course, not all songs are death and resistance, and there are plenty of interludes that fans of the old Decemberists’ narrative style will find satisfactory. “Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes” is an eight-minute, dirgelike song that takes its inspiration from the Slavic myth of the Rusalka, a siren-like creature that lure men to their deaths through song. “Your Ghost,” while not quite a narrative, evokes a sense of being in haunted old dungeons to a hyped-up guitar riff. One of the album’s best songs, “Starwatcher,” combines all the themes of political resistance, prophecy of apocalypse and a narrative of sorts. The song follows the idea of a starwatcher looking up at the sky and warning the populace of danger while simultaneously calling to “hold your ground.”
Not every song on the album is a winner. “Sucker’s Prayer,” which Meloy stated was originally a country song, does not have enough substance to it to stay particularly interesting, and “Once in my Life” feels too repetitive without being intentional about it. Ultimately, the creative risk to experiment keeps The Decemberists relevant to the themes of today. The boat is sinking, but The Decemberists will play till the water engulfs us all.