When I interviewed
Colin Meloy a few months ago, he said that The Decemberists' second full-length would be more "collaborative" than Castaways and Cutouts
-- that band members who once took strict direction from him had become more confident with their own contributions and that, as a result, the album would be a richer, more varied work. Still, it is the non-collaborative part of the album -- the songwriting -- that is better than ever. No one working now can match Meloy as he effortlessly pairs outré language, odd characters and simple but rousing melodies. He may not yet be on a par with guys like Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson or Lennon and McCartney, but he is getting there faster than anyone could expect.
This is certainly a thicker, more dramatic album than Castaways, moving further in the direction of "July, July!" and "Legionnaire's Lament"; however, much remains the same. It is peopled with the same colorful cast of historical misfits, who creak to play-acting life in pirate-themed "Chanty for Arethusa" and melt in more-than-brotherly love in "The Soldiering Life". The difficult slightly scholarly words are here, too -- "bombazine", "dalliant" and "cardamom", to name but a few -- often cheek-to-cheek with silly, potty-mouthed images, as if Meloy feels he has to take the air out of them. For example, in "Los Angeles, I'm Yours", watch two lines of high-flown rhetoric boomerang when you add one line of vernacular: "But the smell of burnt cocaine / The dolor and the drain / It only makes me cranky." Few artists can put the sublime and the ridiculous this close and get away with it.
Musically, Her Majesty's tracks are often notably more exciting than those on Castaways. "Chanty for Arethusa", for example, starts out with a simple uplifting vocal line, strummed guitar and Jenny Conley's haunted accordion notes. The song gets a stiff spine, though -- even early on, in the three-tone electric guitar riff that bursts in at intervals, foreshadowing exactly how the tune will rock, when it does, roughly two and a half minutes in. From there it's a dizzy reel of accordion and raucous drums over that guitar, until the whole thing melts down and begins again from quiet. "The Bachelor and the Bride", which starts out a good bit like "Grace Cathedral", takes texture from a jazzy drumline, all cymbals and syncopated snare, and a bubbling high guitar line that plays tag with its limpid melody. "The Chimbley Sweep" is all goofy high-spirits musically, its Rawhide western guitars and rollicking accordion in sharp contrast to lyrics about poor wretched boys and lonely widows.
As far as I'm concerned, there is only one serious misstep on Her Majesty The Decemberists, and it comes about two minutes into "Los Angeles, I'm Yours". The instrumental break -- all strings and hokey harmonica and schmaltz -- sounds like the theme from a forgotten made-for-TV movie. Maybe it's supposed to. Maybe it's an ironic commentary on the shallowness of LA. All I know is that it sounds like the fucking Love Unlimited Orchestra and it makes my head hurt.
The Decemberists may be moving toward a more orchestrated, densely realized sound, and if they are, I hope they continue to take the path laid out in "I Was Meant for the Stage". This track opens with near-liquid beauty -- just Meloy striking out against guitar notes and tremolo organ tones. As it goes on, the cut slowly gathers other players -- electric keys, drums and more insistent guitars. It's a gorgeous freight train of a song, gaining heft with every measure. When it erupts into a brass chorus, then explodes into "Day in the Life" discord, it seems like a logical end, an inevitable resolution.
Her Majesty The Decemberists shows one of America's smartest, best pop bands reaching a bit further out on the limb they're perched on. No one else is making literate, story-based pop this good, and all indications say that The Decemberists are still getting better.