The Decemberists

Her Majesty

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On Her Majesty, the Decemberists' follow-up to their excellent debut, Castaways and Cutouts, the group cements its reputation as a seafaring Belle & Sebastian or a more grounded Neutral Milk Hotel. Tying together sweet symphonic pop with a ragtag theatricality, this album is more ambitious and more scattered than Castaways and Cutouts, making it an initially less accessible and more difficult listen. However, many of Her Majesty's most indulgent moments are among its best, including the high drama of the album opener, "Shanty for the Aretheusa," an epic that runs with the dark beauty that haunted the corners of the Decemberists' debut and gives it a wild, rambling edge. Likewise, "The Gymnast, High Above the Ground" also displays the band's expertise at creating subtle but palpable drama and swooning romanticism with just a few musical brush strokes. The wonderfully named "I Was Meant for the Stage," a triumphantly bittersweet song for the inner drama queen in everyone, shows off Colin Meloy's uniquely expressive voice: at one moment he's lispingly fey; the next, he's sneering self-deprecatingly. These beautiful, challenging songs make the band's occasional dips into treacle, such as the cloying "Billy Liar," forgivable, but what makes Her Majesty such a solid album is the consistent quality of the songs pitched between its high and low points. "Los Angeles, I'm Yours" flirts with soft rock, coming across as a latter-day single from Al Stewart; "Your Red Right Ankle" is an intimately and creatively detailed love song; and "Song for Myla Goldberg" has a sunny, winning appeal. Even though Her Majesty isn't quite as striking and full-formed as Castaways and Cutouts, it's still a consistently charming album that finds the band coming into its own.

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