2011’s surprisingly successful The King is Dead seemed to mark a progression for The Decemberists, marching down a path of front porch Americana and a folk tradition of roots storytelling. However, on their follow-up, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, the band reminded audiences just how difficult their interests are to tack down, boasting infectious pop tunes with brassy horn arrangements. Now, the Oregon indie darlings are trying something new altogether. As they warned us on “The Singer Addresses His Audience” a few years ago, “We had to change.” Showcasing their adoration for acts like R.E.M. and New Order, the band’s eighth and latest full-length album, I’ll Be Your Girl, is at once a photo album pastiche of their previous aesthetic ventures and a fearless journey into new sonic territory.
The album was produced by noted indie rock producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Future Islands, Lana del Rey), and what a difference his presence has made. Fuzzy guitars and searing synthesizers on tracks like “Once in My Life” and “Severed” make frontman Colin Meloy’s world-wearied, rustic fables sound like they belong on a Killers record. But don’t be fooled; there’s still a folk band hidden beneath the glossy sheen. “Cutting Stone” and “Starwatcher” feel like leftovers from the Crane Wife sessions given a sizzling update for the electropop era. Between the two halves of the band’s mind stands the transcendent “Tripping Along,” a celestial bridge between worlds.
Whether he is displaying his flair for theatricality (“Your Ghost”) or simply trying to amuse himself (“Everything Is Awful”), it is clear that Meloy had a blast making this album. The listener can feel the anxious youngster within him, digging through record crates and wearing his idols on his sleeve. His tastes are varied — it’s as if he loves The Cure as much as he does Spaghetti Westerns and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — but, fortunately for his audience, they bleed together in a loving collage that feels like posters plastering the wall of a dorm room. Furthermore, the expedition deeper in the world of pop music brings welcome autonomy to the talents of Jenny Conlee and Chris Funk, which have been sorely neglected on earlier Decemberists outings.
The experiments don’t always achieve the desired results, and some of the swift transitions can be jarring. When “Sucker’s Prayer,” a gospel blues number à la The Band, leads into “We All Die Young,” a chant-along, Gary Glitter-esque arena rocker, it’s enough to give the listener whiplash. Individually, the songs have their merits (particularly the former), but they feel like points from radically different periods in a storied career, rather than two deliberately simultaneous tracks. The band’s unwavering excitement adds wonders to I’ll Be Your Girl, but it may have done a disservice to the creative harmony of the final product.
As the record draws to a close, we see a bit of a return to form for the band, with folksy tales from days of yore. Notably, the eight-minute “Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes” is a callback to the many lengthy, multifaceted sagas strewn throughout the group’s catalog, echoing “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” or “The Island.” The final track, the sweet campfire duet “I’ll Be Your Girl,” is both the culmination of and an aside from all that has come before it. Meloy remains a skilled lyricist, boiling down his SAT lexicon and macabre imagery into connective, melodic pop verses, but the album’s title track reminds us that he can find beauty in sheer simplicity.
The Decemberists continue to adapt to their surroundings, without losing the mystic charm that initially distinguished them from the wave of other indie folksters. I’ll Be Your Girl isn’t without its missteps, but they mostly work to the benefit of its endearing allure, much like a birthmark. The Decemberists have taken an undeniably ambitious step out of their comfort zone and hopefully it is the sign of a band who will go on to fully embrace the potential of their musical palate. Joyous, daring exploration is a good look on these raconteurs of misfortune.