The Decemberists’ eighth album ‘I’ll Be Your Girl’, branching out into electronic textures to complement their established indie-rock sensitivity, is only partly successful.
Formed at the turn of the millennium and embarking on a lengthy, consistent and gradually evolving career that’s seen them top the Billboard charts on an independent label, Colin Meloy’s The Decemberists were an early personification of the expansive, Americana-influenced and lushly-produced indie rock that’s become an extremely popular sound in the last ten years or so. They have always been able to maintain an edge over most of the sound-alikes that have achieved success in their slipstream, however, because of Meloy’s lyrical intelligence and passion, which has drawn comparison to the likes of Belle & Sebastian’s bookish aesthetic on the other side of the Atlantic.
However, their last album, 2015’s What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, was arguably the first point in The Decemberists’ career that things got a little too settled and predictable. Their eighth record, therefore, represents a shake-up of proceedings. Or rather, given that this is the mannered and gentile Meloy we’re talking about, a nudge. Nothing’s terribly revolutionary about I’ll Be Your Girl in the round: the subject matter and themes of fatalism rendered with sonically ambitious scope remain much the same as before. But what is different this time around is the musical palette that’s being used to bring Meloy’s visions to life.
Things begin in familiar fashion with the curtains-up of ‘Once In My Life’, beginning humbly and lightly but then opening up into choppy arena indie. Meloy’s throaty alto, resembling that of Josh Tillman, is in fine form as ever, with plaintive lyrics like “for once in my life / could just something go right” putting him firmly in the post-Morrissey school. The jaunty rhythm of ‘Everything Is Awful’ is a typical sentiment, even if it does feel for the first verse that Jona Lewie’s Christmas-time track ‘Stop The Cavalry’ is about to start.
The rather forced new-wave and electro influences of lead single ‘Severed’ provided a key indicator of where I’ll Be Your Girl was going to go, and so it proves on rather too much of the album to be anything more than a barely satisfactory curio. Particularly in the first half of the album, Jenny Conlee’s synths become the main engine of the songs, and while everything is in the right place, very little of it is memorable. ‘Cutting Stone’, in particular, should be much better than it actually is, given its ambitious melding of traditional English folk with a focussed disco rhythm that’s vaguely reminiscent of prime-time Kate Bush. On other experimental moments, ‘Your Ghost’ is an ill-conceived, spaghetti-western jangle. ‘Sucker’s Prayer’ is a sterile, Radio 2-friendly take on Father John Misty, despite lyrical performances like “I wanna love somebody / but I don’t know how”.
Things are much more satisfying when The Decemberists stick to normal territory, such as on the moody, expressive penultimate track ‘Rusalko, Rusalko / The Wild Rushes’, the kind of track that shows the kind of imaginative scope that once led the group to record a rock opera. ‘Tripping Along’ is buoyant and driven along by currents of Fleet Foxes-esque folk guitar, while the pleasant closing ditty of the title track rounds things off (as they began) on a familiar note.
The Decemberists are far from the first band to try to meld earthy, old-fashioned instrumentation and folk influences with electronic textures, to make the modern and archaic co-exist. Perhaps that’s why I’ll Be Your Girl is as disappointing as it is, in spite of the lyrical wealth on display – others have just done it so much more effectively. Some tracks just seem like they were bad ideas from the ground upwards, despite certainly being different, and many others conversely seem a bit too prim and proper to engage with properly, leaving the listener thirsting for something with rougher edges. I’ll Be Your Girl just isn’t a different or a dramatic enough of a departure from The Decemberists’ established template to qualify as true experimentation. (5/10) (Ed Biggs)
Listen to I’ll Be Your Girl by The Decemberists here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: album, Chris Funk, Colin Meloy, Ed Biggs, I'll Be Your Girl, Jenny Conlee, John Moen, Nate Query, review, Rough Trade, The Decemberists
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