Everything you’ve heard about ‘I’ll Be Your Girl’ is true – it’s a glorious confection that is spectacularly different from everything that has gone before. And yet it’s also so recognisably in keeping with everything that The Decemberists have ever done. The big difference is that synthesizers and keyboards are given a prominence not heard since ‘The Hazards of Love’, but unlike that coherent experiment in developing a folk-rock opera in the mode of, but so much better than, Jethro Tull ‘I’ll be your Girl’ plays with different styles – from ecstatic release to the Floydesque and through various modes of British influenced Glam-rock. It could sound like a hotch-potch, and when a few folky strummed guitar songs are thrown into the mix then even more so. Yet this is exactly what The Decemberists have always done. The same, but different.
There’s a sense of “hanging on in quiet desperation” that haunts several of the songs, none more so than the opener ‘Once in my Life’ which has Colin Meloy raging futilely against unjust and arbitrary fate, singing the everyman plea “Oh for once in my, for once in my life / Could just something go, could just something go right?”. This comes in on acoustic guitar and departs on waves of euphoric synthesizer, as the blank desperation gets deeper the backing gets more ecstatic. It’s anthemic, like late eighties stadium rock and will doubtless see the fire regulations flaunted when played live as auditoriums fill with flickering lighters. It’s counterpart later in the album, ‘Everything is Awful’, is a bright and breezy chirping little pop song with multi-layered vocals delivering a message of desperation and hopelessness “Everything, everything, everything, everything, everything, thing / everything, everything, everything, everything, everything is awful”. It’s The Decemberists’ take on Fountains of Wayne or Flaming Lips, raising a wry smile as the crescendo celebrates just how bad everything is and there’s no-one to blame but oneself “I know you’ve worked so hard to hoist your own petard”. This cycle of tongue-in-cheek desperation comes to a conclusion in the stomping glam rock of ‘We all die young’ which is an unnatural pairing of Roy Wood’s Wizzard and the squawking saxophone of early Roxy Music all set to a constant thumping beat. The main lyrical concern is encapsulated in the song’s title, which half way through is belted out, Alice Cooper Band style, by a children’s choir.
Against these joyous excesses there are an equal number of more downbeat and poetic songs – the kind of thing that someone who’s only heard ‘Picaresque’ would expect from The Decemberists. There may be no accordions, but the epic ‘Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes’ pairs up doom laden folk songs relating the fates of those who tangle with the spirits that live in lakes and rivers. ‘Cutting Stone’ is a typically perverse folk murder ballad, enlivened by pulsing drumming and more synthesizer lines – it’s a long story song which becomes somewhat reminiscent of ‘Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds’. Not quite as disco as that album – that treat is to come on ‘Severed’, a psychotic tale of stalking and murder with persistently nagging bass lines. It serves to emphasize that this is an album of great contrasts, but there’s nothing here one wouldn’t want to listen to – quite the reverse as on reaching the last notes of the closing title song the hand naturally reaches out to start playing the album again from the top. There can be no finer recommendation – this is an album that both invites and requires re-listens. Far from a minor addition to the Decemberists impressive catalogue, ‘I’ll be your Girl’ is an album to clutch deep to your breast.
Colin Meloy’s band of merry miscreants return in triumphant form.