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Romance Language


The Decemberists: Picaresque

Kill Rock Stars, 2005

Rating: 4.5


Posted: March 23, 2005

By Laurence Station

Picaresque is a misleading title for the 11-track collection comprising The Decemberists' latest foray into the story-song tradition. Certainly there’s a picaresque or roguish quality to many of the characters and elaborately exaggerated situations presented here, but that only tells part of the tale. Aside from the personal and autobiographical sketches, there’s also an aspect of social criticism, hidden behind yarns of ribald, fabulist or heroic buffoonery made famous by writers such as Rabelais, Cervantes and Swift. Additionally, there’s a theme of nautical misadventure or tragedy, one that has cropped up repeatedly in the Decemberists songbook.

Picaresque’s predominant artistic conceit, however, is the romanticization of a cruel reality. The nearest linear example to the style employed by lead singer/songwriter Colin Meloy is the literary Gothicism typified by Victorian authors such as Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters. Putting a fantastic spin on an otherwise incomprehensibly bleak reality proved quite popular with 19th century readers who didn’t want a harshly realistic depiction of what many of them experienced first-hand. It was a way of describing what was happening while making it entertaining at the same time, a cathartic wringing out of the profound grief that darkened the doorstep of so many, be it due to disease, poverty, heartbreak or other ill fortune. Picaresque successfully utilizes this template to relate terrible occurrences in disarmingly catchy and spiritedly romantic ways.

When Meloy sings of the hapless “Eli, The Barrow Boy,” who wishes to buy a “fine robe made of gold and silk Arabian thread” for his ladylove, even though she's dead, it’s incredibly sad but buoyed by a bizarrely fatalistic dose of optimism. Even in death, Eli’s ghost still pushes his cart of cheap wares in hopes of saving enough money to buy that gown. A passionate (not to mention irreducibly reckless) suicide pact that involves jumping off the cliffs of Dover takes center stage on “We Both Go Down Together,” and falls squarely in line with the “doomed lovers” tradition of Wuthering Heights.

The normally flavorless stealing of government secrets gets a romantic spin in “The Bagman's Gambit,” a shadowy D.C.-based narrative about a gullible woman and a Soviet spy to whom she’s single-mindedly devoted (“And for the a tryst in the greenery / I gave you documents and microfilm too”). The zenith of Picaresque’s glorification of the tragic, sordid or downtrodden comes with the deliriously euphoric “On the Bus Mall,” in which a pair of young male prostitutes turn tricks with talkative old men in back alleys and bathrooms, but still imagine themselves “kings among runaways.”

20th century contemporary fiction, the kind sharpened to a fine point by writers like Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis, has favored a candidly realistic style, while the mode of Meloy’s songwriting fancies a more colorful, willfully anachronistic approach. Conceivably a major reason for this 180-degree rebuff stems from Meloy’s rejection of the grittily journalistic method of writing that academic workshops have been pushing for years. Meloy, whose emphasis in college was Creative Writing, intentionally uses dated adjectives and whimsical characters as a way of exposing the pretense of his tales, as if to say that though he may be holding a mirror up to worldly problems and issues, the glass is opaque, and notice that ornately gilded frame, and, hey, what craftsmanship! In “16 Military Wives,” Meloy can hammer the cost of war in numbers of dollars, lives, and grieving widows, but he prefers to wrap his message in a peppy beat and captivating chorus. Hardscrabble language might get its point across more frankly, but it’s unlikely a listener would still be humming the tune weeks late, thus absorbing the deeper, more artfully shaded subtext.

From a technical standpoint, Picaresque features some of Meloy’s most assured songwriting, from the balanced couplets of “Eli, The Barrow Boy”’s buried dead love and its protagonist’s own subsequent interment to clever phrasings such as a childless baroness whose “barren-ness barbs her” (from “The Infanta”). What makes Picaresque a great album, however, is the snug synthesis between the rest of the bandmates playing in relation to Meloy’s verbose lyrics. The progression of more complicated and complementary arrangements to Meloy’s assorted tales of love and woe has been steadily growing from the tentative feeling-out period displayed on the 5 Songs EP and the group’s full length debut, Castaways and Cutouts, to the growing confidence exhibited on 2003’s sophomore effort Her Majesty the Decemberists and last year’s mini-epic The Tain.

Organist/keyboardist Jenny Conlee, drummer Rachel Blumberg (who left the band shortly after recording Picaresque), bassist Nate Quer, and utility man Chris Funk add an enthralling soundtrack to Meloy’s words. (Guest violinist Petra Haden deserves special mention, as does co-producer/guitarist Chris Walla.) Thunderous opener “The Infanta” suits the pomp and circumstance setting of a Spanish King and his court’s steady procession through swelling throngs of onlookers. Likewise, the accordion spotlighting, multi-part “The Mariner's Revenge Song” smartly crests and falls in concert with the two characters trapped in the belly of a whale.

Not everything strikes a harmonious chord, though. “The Sporting Life” runs a tad long, and the lovely, bereft “From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)” leaves barely a whisper of an impression amongst the hardier fare. Minor concerns aside, Picaresque is the strongest statement of the Decemberists’ budding career. Though critics may fault Meloy and his cohorts for excess in the name of art, it’s impossible to dismiss the dedication and verve with which the band pursues its unapologetically literary muse.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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