The Decemberists are not the next Neutral Milk Hotel. They never were: While Jeff Mangum created In the Aeroplane over the Sea, one of the most inventive albums of the ’90s, Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy has done something a little more calculated and no less admirable: Her Majesty, the Decemberists contains some of the most effective storytelling outside of a Raymond Carver anthology. Where magnum crackles sound into catharsis, Meloy spins tales over a carefully-laid blanket of sound. In nasal and insistent tones, he details characters tragic, dainty and peculiar, singing of street urchins, quirky authors and curious bodily appendages.
Attention to characterization and music complimenting lyrical ideas shows that the Decemberists have grown since their debut, Castaways and Cutouts. The crunchy combinations of unlikely instruments and occasional bursts of racket have given way to a cleaner, more measured approach that better sets each track’s mood. Though tighter focus improved the band’s songwriting, it made the songs on Her Majesty slightly less compelling with the first few hearings.
They may have perfected quirky, expansive ballads, but the Decemberists still create sweet and dark acoustic songs. Notable track “Red Right Ankle” sounds tender without getting sappy, and the album’s undoubted high point, “I Was Meant for the Stage,” articulates the desire for fame and adulation nearly perfectly, then devolves into a cacophonous coda. “The Soldiering Life” and closing track “As I Rise” are Her Majesty’s slightly lower points; while they’re decent songs in themselves, they seem to lack the momentum and intricacy of the other tracks.
Happily, the band has improved their incredible versatility in creating characters; the first three on the album are respectively ghostly, jaunty and inspiring. The album opens with the hollow creaking of low strings and piercing scream that introduce “Shanty for Arethusa,” the band’s most effectively orchestrated pirate tune yet. Strains of Jenny Conlee’s accordion recall pre-Industrial Europe, and galloping drums and guitar chords give one the feeling that marauding bandits might jump out from around the next corner. An account of a pubescent boy’s lazy summer, “Billy Liar” serves as the super-catchy second tune. In “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground,” the haunting, pensive gauze of sound introduced by guitar helps build anticipation before the gymnast’s leap. At the track’s climax, the Decemberists’ full sound surges forward, propelling listeners off the platform and out over the crowd.
Meloy has placed some of his most precise lyrics in “Los Angeles, I’m Yours.” Phrases like “An ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore” lilt indolently over the chunk-chunk of acoustic guitar. Impressive alliterative lines are found in “Song for Myla Goldberg” (“… I know I need unique New York” – it’s easier to say than it looks); “The Bachelor and the Bride” features meditative rhymes (“And the windows and the cinders / And the willows in the timbers”) as well as one of the band’s most memorable choruses: “I will box your ears and leave you here stripped bare.”
The Decemberists use playful and sharp ingenuity to fill your dreams with pirates, orphans, soldiers and Geisha girls, so tuck yourself in and listen.
Rating: 3 1/2 stars.