Colin Meloy and his motley crew have transcended the quirky indie-pop character pieces that first caught listeners’ attention on 2003’s Her Majesty and their 2002 debut Castaways and Cutouts to create an emotionally intense, dramatic collection of songs that entwine lyrical material and instrumentals to create a greater whole. Meloy’s words were these previous albums’ strength, but only by a little. Now, The Decemberists have fused music with clearly defined character and Meloy’s intricate, balladic narratives, more literary than ever, to spin some of the most vivid, enthralling works in indie music. Picaresque is the kind of work fans have come to expect from The Decemberists: Their songs are composed of vivid illustrations of intimate tableaux supported by epic storytelling and backed with a personal yet lively pop style. “Infanta” opens the album with spooky shofar (a ram’s horn) howls and the rumbling of a pachyderm parade. “Infanta” is the word for the Portuguese or Spanish princess who’s being exalted Picaresque is stacked with standout tracks whose characters range from barren baronesses and vengeful pirates to Russian spies. Drama drives each of the 11 scene-songs; at least 10 deaths occur over the course of the album, and that’s not counting the war-bound soldiers from “16 Military Wives,” “Out of which only 12 will make it back again.” Each track plays out like a mini-music drama; “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” might as well be the finale to an epic dramatic production. Meloy, playing the vengeful sailor, finally gets his quarry alone — they’re the only two survivors after a whale swallowed their ship. “Its ribs are ceiling beams / Its guts are carpeting,” he sings, and fans can almost see the two onstage, squaring off in a turn-of-the-century band shell painted to look like a marine mammal’s innards. Suddenly, the rest of the band appears behind Meloy, ghoul-faced with accordion and double bass, ready to tell the cruel captain though song why he has to die. More intimate tracks like “Eli, The Barrow Boy,” “From My Own True Love (Lost At Sea)” and closing piece “Of Angels and Angles” are composed mostly of simple acoustic guitar with a few organ touches here and there; the refrain from the titular doomed peddler in “Eli,” “She is dead and gone and lying in a pine grove / And I must push my barrow all the day,” is Picaresque’s most heartwrenching moment. “16 Military Wives” is the first song on which Meloy really places the music at the fore, with raucous horn lines and even some “Pump It Up”-style bass selling the chorus “’Cause America can / And America can’t say no.” But Picaresque’s epic — its “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade,” is “Engine Driver:” Laid-back, bittersweet guitar strumming paired with a mellow drumbeat back Meloy, speaking as a truck driver, a money lender but first, in the most beautifully composed chorus on the album — a writer: “And I am a writer, writer of fictions, / I am the heart that you call home. / And I’ve written pages upon pages trying to rid you from my bones.”Each line of “Engine Driver” envelops the listener in Meloy’s world — listeners are placed inside the narrative, either as the speaker or the one spoken to. Sets spring up at the sound of glittery 12-string strumming, oscillating organ tones and melodic flutters create makeup and period garb — listeners are hitting a late-night rest stop in the middle of nowhere, standing at the edge of a precipice overlooking the English Channel with their star-crossed lover. Meloy’s songs are the modern fairytales we’re not too old to live out in our daydreams; we feel and see them so closely in our minds that these stories are almost as familiar as “Cinderella” or “Sleeping Beauty.”

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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