Bringing in the new wave synths and turning evil usually makes for a good career move. As a step for the Decemberists on their single “Severed,” it makes for a compelling shift, but it’s also a bit misleading. I’ll Be Your Girl presents itself as an all-new, all-different marvel of indie-rock, but the group remains the same. The album at its best teases new directions; at its weakest, it simply sounds like a band quick to the studio with new ideas. With a few highs and a few mistakes, the album offers an uneven listening experience.

That single – “Severed” – provides one of the disc’s highs. The synths and pulsing drums set the song in an icy room of retro-gloom. The singer turns out to be a dictator. The Trump references (“I’m allied to the landslide”) are oblique, but the video makes them more explicit. With or without a precise cultural reference (is Trump the Night King?), the song’s portrayal of an autocrat loosed on the world with venom and execution-leaning tendencies makes for a strong listen.

Likewise opening track “Once in My Life” quickly creates a mood and builds on it. Colin Meloy’s “Oh, for once in my life/ Could just something, could just something go right?” could easily have sunk into a petty whine. Backed by acoustic strumming and simple bass plucking, the track builds to something cathartic, aided by its keys. Meloy reworks that refrain throughout the relatively lengthy track. That persistence shows both the strengths and weaknesses of the disc. Despite the repetitive lyrics, the song works. At the same time, it feels a bit like a demo on reflection, as if surely some of these repetitions are placeholders for finished lyrics. Thanks to the open music and backing vocals, we get relief through the performance, but the track never quite goes to where it could, even after Meloy shifts to singing of his patience in trial and the twist ending.

Maybe because of that opener, “Everything is Awful” becomes unlistenable. The band again provides repetitive lyrics, but now it feels like a joke that doesn’t quite make sense. The chipper little song could be a parody of something, but there’s no clear reference. Straight-faced, it bombs. Take the mismatch of twee singing and heavier music, the Shakespearean reference and whiny closing, and it functions as an example of how the band’s critics perceive the group.

If that song fits a type, a few tracks later we get a total shift. “We All Die Young” turns to glam-rock and, despite the title’s idea, manages to be a fun bite of sugar, party-time saxophone and all. It also shows the band stretching itself. Of course, the group’s employed a variety of stylistic influences from early on, but, 15 years in, it’s good to see them uncovering one more, and possibly taking that with them. When that track’s followed by “Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes,” an eight-minute folk tale of monstrous love, we’re brought back to the quintessential Decemberists, aided by well-fit production. The two songs don’t exactly flow together, but they make for a nice showcase of the band’s flexibility.

Those moments work well, establishing I’ll Be Your Girl as a possible turning point in the band’s career, or at least evidence that they aren’t simply rehashing old works. At the same time, much of the album struggles to find itself, with fine performances but not enough tracks of consequence. With praiseworthy but subtle experimentation, the Decemberists are moving somewhere, and it will be worth hearing when they get there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Steve Earle & the Dukes: J.T.

Steve Earle pays tribute to his late son, Justin Townes Earle, with a collection of covers…