The Decemberists 2024
Photo: Shervin Lainez / Grandstand Media

The Decemberists’ New LP Is a Return to Form

The Decemberists straddle between the exotic and quotidian, the real and imagined, to reveal that existence is most interesting when lived in a liminal state.

As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again
The Decemberists
YABB Records / Thirty Tigers
14 June 2024

Portland indie-rock band the Decemberists are back with a bang with their ninth album, As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again. Indeed, listening to the record conjures up the feeling of as it ever was—if, suddenly, with one giant swipe, the recent past is erased: that this isn’t their first record in six years; they hadn’t released the synth-laden 2018 LP I’ll Be Your Girl, considered by some the nadir of the entire recording history; there hadn’t been a lockdown; it hadn’t been 13 years since their last great studio effort, 2011’s The King Is Dead; and, without being nostalgic, we are back in the mid-2000s when the Decemberists were on top of their game.

In other words, it is a return to form, perhaps even at certain spellbinding moments, reaching the vertiginous heights of Picaresque (2005) and The Crane Wife (2006). According to Colin Meloy, the songwriter behind the Decemberists, it’s their best. What is certain, though, is that As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again works as a summation of the Decemberists’ rich and diverse 20-year history, touching on both their folksy ballads and their more ambitious sonic experimentations. Released as a double LP, each of the four sides acts as a separate chapter yet forms a cohesive whole when listened to as a whole, becoming an entry point for new listeners and a much-welcome addition for seasoned fans.

What separates the Decemberists from other contemporary bands is Meloy. Once again, he shows his erudition and literary flair, mordant wit, and operatic vignettes—his gift for storytelling. It should come as no surprise, then, in the six-year-interim, Meloy wrote further children’s books— his first in 2011—produced and released picture books, and he wrote an adult fiction novel set for publication in 2025. Lyrically, on As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again, Meloy straddles between the exotic and the quotidian, the real and the imagined, to reveal that existence is perhaps most interesting when lived in a liminal, even perplexing, state. Moreover, the tightly-woven group of songs seem, in one way or another, to grapple with mortality; sometimes with a gallows humour, such as the opening track, jangle-pop “Burial Ground”, or with solemness as on “The Black Maria”, complete with an elegiac horn.

Either way, the nimble-footed “Burial Ground” becomes a kind of Danse Macabre, or a rendezvous at a graveyard—perhaps a conspiratorial wink to the Smiths‘ “Cemetery Gates”, considering Meloy released an entire EP containing Morrissey covers in 2005. In any case, it is a lucid pop song that you could imagine Lemon Twigs covering—and ends on a whack of the drumbeat of the Ronettes’ classic, “Be My Baby”. The next track, “Oh No!”, begins with a Latin-flavour guitar, reminiscent of Tom Waits‘ “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” before a dirty Dixieland jazz horn riff in the mid-section echoes Bruce Springsteen‘s version of “Pay Me My Money Down”, backed by the Sessions Band. Depicting a bacchanalian party, or, rather, the night of a wedding, the lyrics are replete with comedic and Renaissance-like imagery.

After close to two decades with Capitol, it is the Decemberists’ first record on their own label, YABB Records, and finds stalwart co-producer Tucker Martine, who began working with the Decemberists on The Crane Wife, returning to the fold after being absent for I’ll Be Your Girl. With the whole album seemingly about the ineluctability of death, it is unsurprising to find “The Reapers” not about farming or a fallow period in creativity but another metaphor about the Grim Reaper. Though Meloy’s words are distinctly and poetically his, they are also anchored in the past. Ergo, As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again is a collection of fantastical folk tales that seem to have always existed—stories that seem to percolate in folk’s collective consciousness without ever revealing an exact locus; echoing pasts, doubles, ghosts, and apparitions.

The fourth track, “Long White Veil”, has the country murder ballad “Long Black Veil” lurking on the periphery. Bursting with springy guitars and acoustic guitars and building with a weeping pedal steel and a wheezing accordion, “Long White Veil” is an emotive ballad before knocking one sideways—both in profundity and hilarity—with the John Prine-esque observation: “On the very same day I buried her / In the cemetery plot by her mother / Though she nevеr gave a thought to her mother.” From the neo-psychedelia “Born to the Morning” onwards, As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again shifts into a different guise, and “America Made Me”, with the Beatles-esque, sprightly piano lines, finds Meloy examining what it means to be an American.

Meloy’s writing belongs to a bygone world. He is fascinated with historical figures, such as William Fitzwilliam, an English admiral during the reign of Henry VIII, who is the subject of one track. Thus, the settings of the songs have a weird old charm, returning to when folk was surreal and dreamlike, like the Scottish and English ballads of the 17th and 18th centuries, or its Appalachian ballads progeny, before folk became primarily associated with protest music.

After reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan (2017) and reading a couple more books on the 15th-century French peasant and saint Joan of Arc, who burned at the stake for not recanting her beliefs, Meloy wrote the 19-minute progressive rock “Joan in the Garden”—the longest studio track the Decemberists have put to tape—which closes As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again. Over swirling instrumentation, filled with synths, braying violins, sonic feedback, Meloy imparts a fictional retelling of the life of Joan of Arc; it is outlandishly bombastic, a far cry from the stark beauty of Leonard Cohen’s “Joan of Arc.”

As a collection of jaunty folkie ballads, with numinous backing vocals (including James Mercer of the Shins at the end of “Burial Ground”), spectral synths, and songs that seem to originate from Mummers’ plays, the Decemberists are very much their amusing, whimsical, inimitable selves. Above all, though, I like the Henri Rousseau-inspired cover art.