I’m going to cut through the bullshit and get right to the point—this is one of those divisive records. You are going to either love it or hate it based upon preference alone. I read a particular review that tore the album apart; this critic was ranting about bourgeois kids and solipsism and the whole time I was reading I couldn’t help but think that this guy probably owns every Autechre LP. The Decemberists are an extremely talented band that belong to a special group of artists. Earnest. Romantic. Theatrical. If these words scare you then stay away from the band. People may steer clear because of these factors (some are just not down with sad-sacks, yo) but the music on Picaresque is anything but mediocre and naive. You’ve got to have an acquired taste for The Decemberists brand of helter-skelter, orchestral pop. This is fantastic stuff (as in, fantasy) that bares the certain markings of another medium (the written story!), so if you’re all into the LCD S and Out Hud or exclusively interested in Basinski and Organum, stay away. Don’t try and devalue this recording based upon your selective taste. There is without a doubt a ton of lovely moments on this disc and anyone who bashes it outright is no different than those Silent Alarm lovers who hate the Milk Eyed Mender crowd (or vice versa). Good music transcends boundaries and genres. Ok, I’m done with this preschool intro.
So now that I have tried to prep you for the album, I have to also warn you that the most “ehhhh” inducing song is Picaresque’s first, “The Infanta.” It grows on you after a few listens but to me the song falters in its enthusiastic imitation of Eastern European folk. “We Both Go Down Together” is the most obvious example of that sad-sackyness that we talked about, but it gets the album started better than “The Infanta.”
The Decemberists are at their worst when they blend perfectly the epic tale in the concise pop song form. Songs like “The Engine Driver” and “On the Bus Mall” are decent enough but they just don’t succeed either as pop songs or as interesting, emotionally involved stories. Usually it is when artists combine disparate elements that they are praised, but that is not the case here. By far, the best tracks are the straight ahead pop numbers and the real epics. “The Sporting Life” is bouncy as fuck and “16 Military Wives” is a perfect political pop gem (or P3 as I like to call it). “The Bagman’s Gambit” does it for me though, and I think it is the most epic track on this disc that is so often called by its epic tracks. The real whopper is supposed to be the nearly nine minute long “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” and while it is a neat tale with a few twists and turns, for me it doesn’t reach the level of sadness or moments of fleeting peace exampled in “The Bagman’s Gambit.” “The Bagman’s Gambit” also concludes with one of The Decemberists most experimental sections (a flurry of instruments builds and interrupts the melancholic proceedings, Colin Meloy speak-singing in the background to a cathartic effect). “Of Angels and Angles” ends the album on a pleasant whimper, unfortunately.
Not that I want to beat the comparison to death, but listening to a Decemberists album really is like jumping into a good book. Some of us like Dostoevsky, some like a night alone with Derrida text, and some enjoy the odd Dickens. While each reader enjoys different text, there’s no arguing that they would all rightly acknowledge the particular brilliance inherent in each of those readings. The same should be done by all when approaching The Decemberists.
- Andrew Iliadis
/apr 15th 2005/