The Decemberists 2024
Photo: Shervin Lainez / Grandstand Media

The Decemberists’ New LP Offers a Unified Whole

The Decemberists’ As It Ever Was, So It Will Be indulges the right indulgences (mostly) but makes space for the group to speak with tenderness and gravitas.

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

When are the Decemberists at their best? The immediate answer is when they’re at their most baroque and literary. Find this on tracks like “The Island”, a multilayered, weirdly orchestrated opera based on The Tempest, or “The Infanta”, which offers a galloping beat and improbably rhymes “palanquin” with “elephant”. To the group’s credit, the kooky erudition is not a gimmick; they can conjure transcendent material (“The Crane Wife”) when they veer in this direction.

However, the hardest-hitting of the Decemberists’ songs are often the simplest. The brutal honesty of “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, the bucolic beauty of “June Hymn”, and the earnest two-chord prayer of “Songs & Daughters” all involve them shedding the gambit and shooting straight. The ability to create the effect makes them endlessly entertaining while letting the stark moments go further. The magic is the contrast.

When they stumble, it’s because they get lost in this juxtaposition. The Hazards of Love, a 2009 rock opera, went too hard into the Call of the Weird, lacking the humility of other releases. Meanwhile, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World searched for balance but never found it. The ideal Decemberists record is one that meaningfully uses their contrasts and proclivities to go far beyond what any individual song, or either of their fundamental orientations, could achieve on their own.

This brings us to As It Ever Was, So It Will Be: a record that indulges the right indulgences (mostly) but makes space for the Decemberists to speak with tenderness and gravitas. It is a record of drama and contrast; it feels natural as it progresses from one song to the next. But starting the LP from the beginning right after listening to the last song feels like landing on another planet. The success is in the entirety of the work.

As It Ever Was, So It Will Be has four parts. The first is four midtempo groovers; despite a shared mood, the Decemberists do rather well in distinguishing one song from the next. That partly lives in singer and songwriter Colin Meloy’s melodies. “Burial Ground”, the opening track, is infinitely singable and simple, while “Oh No!” wields the percussive erudition on which his reputation is built.

The contrast is also found in the group’s performances. John Moen’s subtle 6/8 beat hums beneath on “The Reapers”, while a rambunctious calypso groove drives “Oh No!” Meanwhile, bassist Nate Query sets an unpretentious foundation for “Long White Veil”, but is downright exploratory on “Burial Ground”. While these first four songs are unambitious, each makes a meaningful contribution.

The second section is acoustic and mostly downtempo. “William Fitzwilliam” is noteworthy. In the first half, an English nobleman with a goofy name rides his skateboard (why not?) to greet one of Henry VIII’s wives. But after a stirring Chris Funk solo, William Fitzwilliam returns home, vulnerable under the night, knowing that a darkness lurks around him. It’s an elegant narrative turn and beautifully performed, a songwriting trick that is easy to envision but hard to pull off.

Despite the efforts of “William Fitzwilliam” and the rambunctious “Born to the Morning”, the acoustic middle is mixed in quality. “All I Want Is You” is bland, but at least the horns are nice. Meanwhile, “Don’t Go to the Woods” is musically auspicious but too vague to compete with the band’s other ghost stories like “Shankill Butchers”.

As It Ever Was, So It Will Be‘s third section is a disposable pair of songs. While “America Made Me” and “Tell Me What’s on Your Mind” are fine tracks, they appear too late on the LP. North of the 35-minute mark and after the excitement of “Born to the Morning”, the album should turn to its conclusion rather than spitting out two more tracks that sound like they belong on Side A.

The final section, the epilogue, anchors the record. “Never Satisfied” carries a sparse, stately esteem, a plea for the listener to appreciate their place in the universe and find perspective in the hustle and bustle of daily life. While “Never Satisfied” is a strong track on its own, it is buoyed by its relationship to songs like “Oh No!” and “Born to the Morning”, which unleash chaos. In this context, the track’s simplicity becomes deceptive: how can one become satisfied amidst all this? This shifting meaning makes the song a major contributor to As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again.

The LP closes with “Joan in the Garden”, the heaviest and longest song the Decemberists have ever released. Beginning tenderly, “Joan” eventually reaches tortured, dense, progressive rock. Rather than soundtracking a folksy narrative, they are plunged directly into the heart of the storm. While the five minutes of ambient soup in the middle drags down the suite, the triumphant coda ties the bow on one of the most stirring tracks in the band’s repertoire.

“Joan in the Garden” is a long walk from “Burial Ground”, and this distance gives As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again its spark. The record features four or five standout tracks but punches far above its weight as a unified work. While this new LP will not convert many new fans, The Decemberists have re-found that comfortable spot between the arcane and the humane. For that, the dedicated followers will be grateful.

RATING 7 / 10