As the release and touring cycle for the Decemberists’ tepidly received 2018 album I’ll Be Your Girl winds down they’ve put out an EP collecting outtakes and b-sides from those sessions. This practice has become standard for the band; The King Is Dead spawned Long Live the King and What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World was followed by Florasongs. And like those previous EPs, Traveling On is just fine. There are no bad songs here, but there also aren’t any hidden gems.
Looking at the tracklisting, two of these five songs might spark recognition from fans. The most obvious is “Tripping Along (Full Band Version)”, which is exactly what it sounds like. “Tripping Along” was a quiet song on I’ll Be Your Girl, featuring frontman Colin Meloy singing and accompanying himself with gently strummed electric guitar, with occasional organ chords filling out the sound in the background. It’s not a great song in the first place, and adding soft drums and pumping up the volume on the organ doesn’t really improve it. The Decemberists have done quiet, tender songs like this many times and neither version of “Tripping Along” really stands out, even on a list restricted to “quiet and tender Decemberists songs”.
The second notable song is the title track. “Traveling On” has been a live staple at the band’s concerts for a few years, so diehards will likely be happy to have a studio version. As a non-diehard, “Traveling On” was new to me, and it gets better with repetition. It’s a gently rolling track that is essentially a road song about being in the Decemberists, mentioning L.A., London, and Duluth. But since this is Colin Meloy, the lyrics are cloaked in a patina of pretension, mentioning union labor, lifeboats, a dauphin, and this couplet: “No one knows you / Nations loathe you.” But snatches like the “no one knows you” part of that line, and the chorus lyric that goes “Sold for a song / And it won’t be long / ’til we’re traveling on” give a genuine sense of the weariness that comes from being on the road for months at a time. Especially for a band that reached a large club-small theater venue plateau somewhere in the late 2000s and has just stayed there. The kicker for me is the last line of non-repeated lyrics in the song: “Please let me know when I can recuse myself if I choose.” Put in the context of touring exhaustion, the gently rolling pace of the song feels more like a band that’s too worn out to play a high energy song about the road and it becomes more effective.
The three other tracks on Traveling On each hit familiar styles for the band. “Down on the Knuckle” is an upbeat song about, well, knuckling down to work, missing out on things in the outside world, and trying not to care about it because you’re finally getting the work done. The pulsing rhythm section drives the song, but Chris Funk’s oddball noise-rock guitar work on the verses gives the track a little more bite than expected. “I Will Not Say Your Name” is an angry dirge, with ponderous, heavy guitar riffs. It reads as an anti-Trump screed, with the only real verse containing lines like, “You plate your world in gold / To hide the rot of your soul / Yours is the mind of a child / Everything you touch you defile.” Angry political screeds can be affecting, but this one drags on for nearly seven minutes, with interminable guitar solos and band jams in between the repeated too-often chorus.
“Midlist Author” is a jaunty, piano-based song that resembles other jaunty Decemberists songs, particularly “Sixteen Military Wives”, as well as a handful of jaunty, piano-based Beatles songs. It’s bouncy and fun and the subject matter (“Midlist author / You’re never the best but you’re never the worst”) is very much a Colin Meloy construct. But it’s also something the Decemberists have done better on other occasions.
And that’s Traveling On. It’s a not-bad release, but it’s also not a particularly good one. As with the album these songs were culled from, it sounds like the Decemberists just doing their thing but without a lot of great ideas behind them. If you’re a longtime fan who still waits excitedly for the next thing from Colin Meloy and company, this will likely scratch that itch. But if you’re feeling like the band has gotten a little tired over the past few years, well, Traveling On won’t change that feeling. Although listening to “Traveling On” the song might garner some empathy from you for how the band themselves have been feeling.