Synth-heavy and genuine with ultra clean production, I'll Be Your Girl
could be the album that saves The Decemberists
from falling into the same routine. Their last full-length album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World,
was a set of folk-rock tunes that all seem to follow the same paint-by-numbers musical formula, and their most recent release, an EP Florasongs,
was a jumbled set of leftovers from the former. For the most part, both fell flat with fans and critics alike. On this new record, however, The Decemberists are seriously kicking it up with some fuzzy, synth-heavy tunes that still ring true of the lyrically eccentric band that once wrote a 9-minute long ballad about living inside of a whale.
The album starts out with "Once in My Life", a deeply earnest, clean acoustic jam that devolves at the hook into warm, fuzzed-out synths and a rolling bass. "Oh for once in my life / could just something go right / I've been waiting all my life," Meloy sings with conviction, and this sets the tone for the rest of the album - honest and gratingly authentic with lyrics that sound a little bit like a shoulder shrug: the times they are a-changin', The Decemberists seem to say.
There are some exceptions: "Starwatcher" is a beat-heavy, mournful tune that sounds like the track a knight in shining armor would play on the way to save Rapunzel from her tower, but is ultimately skippable. On this album though, the lows are followed by highs: "Tripping Along" comes right after and is a slow, crescendoing folk tune that Decemberists fans will appreciate. While the record has been upbeat and synth-studded until now, the theme skids to a stop with this track - melting and thoughtful, the lyrics tell a story about family and mistakes, "and we're tripping, tripping, tripping, tripping / what messes are we?".
The deep conviction in the lyrics eventually gives way to silliness, but still retains its charm. In "Everything is Awful", cheerful harmonies abound as Colin Meloy's voice bounces back and forth with energetic female vocals. Trilling "everything-everything-everything-everything is awful", the chorus a bizarrely bright repetition of the phrase, even including some skippy la-la-las against the bubblegum pop harmony. In "Sucker's Prayer", Meloy cries "I wanna love somebody but I don't know how". Both of these cuts cement the deeply-rooted earnestness that runs through this whole record: simple declarations and a throwback to the wide, scuzzy sound of Britpop synths, all of it understated in the folky bluegrass roots The Decemberists do not forget.
As the album winds down, we get a good old-fashioned, eight minute-long ballad, "Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes." That is The Decemberists strong suit: a journey through a pastoral childhood that dips up and down with a definitive plot and resolution. It sounds more similar to "The Tain" or "The Island" than anything else, a testament to the band's unique ability to broach many moods and feelings in a single track. It is this ability that led them to create their folk-rock opera, The Hazards of Love
, that takes the listener through a dozen different landscapes and soundscapes before it's over. Anthemic and exciting, it's both a throwback and a step forward.
The album ends with the title track "I'll Be Your Girl", a 1950s-sounding, ultra clean and sweet love song that breaks down during the chorus to warbling, underwater synths and mallets, Meloy's voice echoing "and you never need a guy to guide you / I'll be your girl". Though it definitely sounds like the simple and uninventive folk-rock tunes of their previous record, the honey-sweet harmonies and echoing vocals manage to sound a little like a modern Beach Boys, and again it feels purely authentic.
For this twee, intellectual indie folk band that has seen so much change in their sound, this album's beauty and charm comes from its unabashed determination to create a new direction itself while still keeping the imaginative character The Decemberists are known for. And through a series of warm, earnest tracks that remain interesting, synth-laden and ripe with the eccentric lyricism Meloy is best at, they manage to accomplish just this. It looks like the heyday of The Decemberists is not over yet.
The record is out on Friday March 16th via Capitol Records, but you can stream it now on NPR