The Decemberists

Picaresque

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"The Infanta," the thunderous opening track on the Decemberists' fluid and predictably studious Picaresque, rolls in like a ghost ship at 40 knots in a hail of cannon fire with a mad English professor at the wheel. Colin Meloy and his esteemed West Coast colleagues have no qualms about beginning their third full-length record with a processional about a child monarch, and it's a testimony to their talents as orators and interpreters of both the absurd and the mundane that they continue to assimilate more fans than they alienate. While Picaresque follows its predecessor's -- the treacly Her Majesty -- predilection for seafaring and mythology, its boot-covered feet are more firmly planted in the present, resulting in the group's most accessible -- and decidedly upbeat -- product to date. The rollicking "16 Military Wives," the aforementioned "Infanta," and "The Sporting Live" (which comes dangerously close to Belle & Sebastian's "Stars of Track and Field") help balance the spooky atmospherics of more reserved cuts like "From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)" and "Eli, the Barrow Boy." The Decemberists have always excelled at midtempo British folk-inspired dream pop, and Picaresque is no exception, as the brooding "We Both Go Down Together," which sounds like a mist-drenched Pacific Northwest rendering of R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion," and the wistful "Engine Driver" rank among the group's finest offerings. The album concludes with the diabolical "Mariner's Revenge Song," a Tin Pan Alley dirge/operetta reminiscent of Kurt Weill's "The Black Freighter," and the brief but intoxicating "Of Angels and Angles," a solo Meloy ballad celebrating the holy trinity of nautical lore: love, drowning, and death.

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