Picaresque

The Decemberists

Kill Rock Stars, 2005

http://www.decemberists.com

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/13/2022

Picaresque is often cited at or near the top of any “best-of” Decemberists album list, the start of their classic period and a refinement of the unique sound established in their debut. By this point—their third album—the Portland band had established its love of British folk, seafaring-inspired mythology, and storytelling chops, and the result was an indie rock band that sounded like no other.

The beauty of this album is how it pivots from Victorian folk to rollicking indie rock to brooding dream pop with ease and confidence, investing care in the lyrics and remaining doggedly determined in its own path. If you have any tolerance for songs about old-timey sailors getting eaten by whales, or a parade with elephants carrying a child found in a river, or a barrow boy and a bagman, then you’ll get the most out of this album. But even if not, there’s enough here to convince you to give these guys a try.

“The Infanta” crashes in with a wail and a strident, rolling drumbeat, concerning a lavish parade for what one assumes is a baby born to privilege, but is revealed at the end to be an unknown child found in a basket in the water. It’s the second-most upbeat song here—cheery, and nobody dies!—and a good sign for what’s to come.

Indie-loving outsider kids will be able to relate to “The Sporting Life,” a jaunty rumination from the point of view of a student-athlete who just sustained an injury during a game and is looking around the playing field contemplating his life and taking things in: the narrator’s father looking on in disappointment (“And Father had had such hopes / For a son who would take the ropes / And fulfill all his old athletic aspirations / But apparently now there's some complications”), to the jock who beats the nerd who dared to play sports (“And there's my girlfriend arm in arm / With the captain of the other team / They condescend and fix on me a frown”) to the coach who thinks the same thing (“There's my coach he's looking down / The disappointment in his knitted brow / ‘I should've known,’ he thinks again / ‘I never should have put him in’”). The detail at the beginning of the score being 12-1 makes me think the narrator is a benchwarmer, a scrawny nerd (maybe a theater or band kid) who was put in at the end of the game and who still managed to screw up and hurt himself, much to everyone’s disappointment.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

As good and relatable as that song is, though, “16 Military Wives” is even better, the most topical and current song Colin Meloy ever wrote, a song that isn’t so much anti-war and anti-celebrity as it is a sarcastic, satirical take on how war and news is reduced to easy statistics, how celebrities are touted as experts, how higher education can be self-important and how Americans take whatever the la-de-da newsperson tells them while eating dinner, barely digests what they are told, and then goes about their life. Some great lines in the song, such as “Fifteen celebrity minds / Leading their fifteen sordid, wretched, checkered lives / Will they find the solution in time / Using their fifteen crispy moderate liberal minds,” or “Eighteen academy chairs / Out of which only seven really even cares” or “If America says it's so, it's so.” The gut punch is that, of the sixteen military wives, only 12 of the husbands come home from the war, but this human cost is barely acknowledged because screen time has to be given to a B-list celebrity’s opinion on the war instead.

“The Engine Driver” and “On The Bus Mall” are lovely acoustic pieces, reminiscent of mid-period R.E.M.; the latter concerns two runaways who learn to make a living by prostitution and eke out an existence in barrooms and pool halls and alleys, but who have each other through it all. That gloomy downturn in fortune is more keeping in line with Decemberists characters, and sets the stage for the nine-minute album closer “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” a great sea shanty story song about a wicked rake of a sailor who leaves a widow heartbroken and crazy, and the widow’s son who waits all his life to avenge her, and who finally learns to sail and chases the rake across the sea… until both boats are eaten by a whale. The creepy female vocals echo the dying widow’s words to her son: “Find him, bind him / Tie him to a pole and break his fingers to splinters / Drag him to a hole until he wakes up naked / Clawing at the ceiling of his grave.” Straight out of Edgar Allen Poe, that is. The song ends with both men in the belly of the whale and the narrator—the son—telling the rake how their stories intertwine and then saying “These are the last words you’ll ever hear,” before the music takes over and speeds up to the climax. It’s implied that the words are the same his mother told him, and that fact lends a whole creepy and compelling vibe to the song.

After this, the Decemberists would make two concept albums, then a Tom Petty album, then lose their way for a bit, leaving Picaresque as one of a kind in their discography. It’s not perfect (“Eli, The Barrow Boy,” “The Bagman’s Gambit” and “From My Own True Love” are pretty standard Meloy fare that don’t reach the highlights here, and that drag the proceedings down), but the best songs here are among the best the band ever released, and if you’re new to the band this is as good a place to start as any.

Rating: B

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