Portland, Oregon quintet
the Decemberists have always excelled at meshing clever and captivating lyricism, distinguishing vocals, fetching melodies, and vibrant mixtures of solemn indie folk, celebratory chamber pop, and a few touches of progressive rock here and there. While 2005’s Picaresque and 2009’s The Hazards of Love remain their career masterpieces, each of the group’s prior seven studio LPs—including 2015’s What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World—offered enough rich instrumentation and riveting songwriting to maintain their matchlessness.
Sadly, their latest effort, I’ll Be Your Girl, possesses nearly none of that intellectual, emotional, and colorful charm. Sure, it still sounds like a Decemberists record—with a tad more synth influence this time around—but far too much of it is vapid and lazy, if not downright monotonous at times. Even the few instances of their former enchanting glory (both compositionally and thematically) merely evoke similar, yet stronger, pieces of the past. Really, I’ll Be Your Girl feels almost entirely like a collection of shallow B-sides that should’ve stayed on the cutting room floor, making it the weakest Decemberists album by far.
According to frontman Colin Meloy, the goal behind I’ll Be Your Girl was to “just get out of [their] comfort zone”, adding, “we wanted to free ourselves from old patterns and… try something different.” That included using a new producer—John Congleton (Lana del Ray, St. Vincent)—and incorporating a bit of “early glam” influences (such as Depeche Mode and Roxy Music) to “share a mood that’s steeped in our current times and condition”, like “exuberant nihilism” meets “an apocalyptic dance party”. Meloy also notes that the writing is more “economical” and “egalitarian” than on earlier releases yet maintains his trademark dark contemplation. While these changes certainly add a few surprising shades to I’ll Be Your Girl, their novelty isn’t enough to salvage much of its wasted potential.
Several tracks on the full-length are superficially pleasant but lack the depth that the Decemberists typically deliver in droves. For instance, opener “Once in My Life” promises eloquent introspection at first since its initial chord progression recalls that of the gorgeously touching “On the Bus Mall“. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really go anywhere afterward, choosing instead to repeat the same few lines as the arrangement—resolute drums, glittery coatings, acoustic and electric guitars strums, and backing vocals from keyboardist Jenny Conlee—modulates a bit. In a sense, it’s like a continuous chorus that’s never fleshed out by other elements (verses, bridges, jams, and the like). Likewise, the subsequent “Everything is Awful” is a moderately downtrodden venture that similarly goes nowhere (although its vocal counterpoints are a nice touch), and like the shrill Western touch of “Your Ghost” and the militaristic “We All Die Young”, eventually becomes downright irritating in its hallow repetitiousness.
To be fair, there are some moments of stronger songwriting and poignancy, but they still pale in comparison to the scholarly/sentimental weight and engrossing instrumentation of many erstwhile classics. “Cutting Stone”, “I’ll Be Your Girl”, and “Sucker’s Prayer” are catchy acoustic laments (the latter even includes the requisite mention of “drowning”), yet they ultimately make you want to turn to far greater compositions like “Red Right Ankle”, “Lake Song”, and the three-part “Crane Wife” gem. As for the penultimate suite, “Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes”, it’s easily the strongest entry in the set, with the kind of forlorn dignity and majestic deviations that always make the Decemberists shine; that said, its few elements of innovation can’t help it escape the shadow of precursor triumphs like “The Tain” and “The Island” (hell, its ending segment downright mirrors the closing of “The Tain“).
At its best, I’ll Be Your Girl is a sufficiently appealing listen that captures the beloved Decemberists formula well enough (whilst conjuring vastly superior prior selections); at its worst, the LP comes across like an empty shell whose handful of new techniques can’t disguise a severe absence of memorability or meaning. In a way, it sounds like a Decemberists tribute band who can emulate their style decently enough on the surface but sorely lacks the complexity (lyrically, musically, and narratively) to measure up. In other words, I’ll Be Your Girl would stand as a fine but forgettable work on its own, yet when compared to the pedigree of its predecessors, it’s quite disappointing in every way.