[14 September 2003]
An important detail about Her Majesty the Decemberists—and one I’m venturing you won’t read about in many other reviews of the album—is that there’s a lyric sheet inside. Though lyric sheets are not unheard of entities in contemporary releases, they are a rare find, overlooked in favor of arty photography/graphic design or more often nothing (fewer pages to print = less cost). So by finding the words inside, all neatly typed in a classic font, you know a couple of things right off about this band. First, they want you to read their lyrics. And second, they hope you’ll eventually sing along.
Allow me to further interpret these seemingly petty details. The Decemberists’ songs—on this release, sporting titles like “Shanty for the Arethusa” and “The Chimbley Sweep”, are stories. More than that, they are involved narratives, which paint historical scenes in faraway places, pluck literary references from dusty volumes and use multisyllabic words you may need a dictionary to define. Giving you their lyrics so plainly is both an offering and an instruction. At once, they’re showing their cards (no mysterious phrases, no possessive secrecy) and unearthing a whole other world of imagination and curiosity. (Who are Billy Liar and Myla Goldberg (as songs are named after both)? And if insight into them makes the songs more meaningful, what other allusions are hidden elsewhere?)
At the same time, the lyric sheet represents a simple desire to turn their music into something sing-able—mimicking the folk convention of passing songs along orally before they were ever written down. You learn the words, you sing the songs, they get stuck in your head, you sing them for others. The best music has always pollinated this way, and the Decemberists are wise to aid along this ritual.
Together, in a nutshell, you have the Decemberists: erudite populists, knotty folksingers, innovative traditionalists through and through. Her Majesty the Decemberists is their second full-length release, following the critically praised Castaways and Cutouts, originally released in 2001. The fivesome from Portland, which features Colin Meloy (voice, guitar), Jenny Conlee (keyboards, accordion), Chris Funk (guitars, pedal steel), Jesse Emerson (electric and upright bass) and Rachel Blumberg (drums, vox), have so far enjoyed unexpected success, having Kill Rock Stars interested in signing them and Castaways reissued this year to a wash of praise. Her Majesty, therefore, is their first foray where the world is watching (or, at least, a bigger sliver of the world than previously).
Her Majesty remains in stylistically similar to Castaways, but with some noticeable changes worth mentioning. Overall, the album is much brighter—a cleaner, shinier, more open production, with tunes that overall are warmer, even when their content isn’t. Secondly, Rachel Blumberg sings a number of backup harmonies, giving the entire album a homier, more collaborative feel. Whereas Castaways had a number of highly memorable numbers, this album contains a clear, standout (dare I say, radio-friendly? Well, maybe college-radio) “anthem” in “Los Angeles, I’m Yours”. Altogether, these shifts make the album feel a lot more accessible. More accessible isn’t necessarily good or bad, but it is indeed different.
The aforementioned “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” is by far the album’s strongest track, showcasing singer/guitarist/lyricist Colin Meloy’s keen ability to recreate an environment with words. Opening with brusque, staggered acoustic guitar strokes and tiptoeing cymbal hits, it sounds like a march of sorts, though one toward uncertain ends. Meloy’s unmistakable voice—which pretty in its awkwardness, like a gangly adolescent—bleats out the poetic lyrics, which so acutely damn the city that it’s almost a tribute: “An ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore/ Los Angeles, I’m yours.” The instrumentation fills out with bass, keyboards and strings, turning the march into a sweet, hearty ode. The lavish beauty of the music is a curious foil to Meloy’s continuing pejorative lyrics: “How I abhor this place!/ Its sweet and bitter taste/ Has left me wretched, wretching on all fours.”
“Los Angeles, I’m Yours” sits in the middle of a five-song set of strong, magnificent Decemberists material that unfortunately is cut short by the plain Jane of “Song for Myla Goldberg”, a song that strives for catchy and instead falls just short, at annoying. Perhaps it’s the bordering on silly lyrics (“I know New York, I need New York, I know I need unique New York”) or the overzealous jubilance of the melody. But the song ends a disappointment, which is carried further into the rather lackluster “The Soldiering Life”. Telling the story of a fighter warring in an era before Smart Bombs and perhaps even anesthetics, it seems more a shell of a Decemberists song than the real thing. What is hardly formulaic on other numbers here just sounds like the product of some bare bones calculations—maybe “pick historical subjectivity, add bright pop melody, stir.” The gorgeous, facile, tragic “I Was Meant For the Stage” and dark, determined “The Chimbley Sweep” save the end of the album, but for sure, the best is at the beginning; so much so that tracks 1-5 may very well end up being the world of the album to you.
Still, Her Majesty the Decemberists is distinctive, where the good parts are so good that it’s easy to overlook the not-so-good. Think of it as a delicious, rare fruit, so ripe and sweet that tiny bits of it have gone brown. And if Her Majesty is that strange, delicious crop, the Decemberists themselves are the bearing tree, well beyond a sapling but still not fully grown. This is good news, for there are plenty of seasons left for harvest. The morsels that will be picked in the future will be even tastier, for sure.