On The Decemberists’ 2015 album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, Colin Meloy opened with a pithy parody of an artist addressing his fanbase: “We know you threw your arms around us in the hopes we wouldn’t change / But we had to change”, he mused. What was curious about the tracks that followed was their predictability. Quirky poeticisms, literary allusions, bawdy yarns, pleasantly melodic alt-folk – it was all pretty standard Decemberists fare.
Meloy has since conceded that he found himself “making familiar choices” and that he wanted the Portland-Oregon quintet to experiment with new styles and sounds. From the opening tracks of I’ll Be Your Girl, it’s clear that this time The Decemberists really have changed. Opener ‘For Once In My Life’ initially seems an homage to The Smiths’ ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’ (Meloy released a 6-track EP of Morrissey covers in 2005). The front-man warbles earnestly over strummed acoustic chords, before the song unexpectedly bursts into euphoric, anthemic synth-pop. It’s a transition that typifies the band’s style-shift on I’ll Be Your Girl from artful alt-folk storytellers to an unconvincing, synthesiser-led new wave band.
Here though it’s a success, the song’s simple yet affecting synth refrain recalling the directness of New Order. Lead single ‘Severed’ has a more malign, menacing atmosphere: Meloy’s jarring, extended notes underpinned by a worming keyboard pattern and jowls of distorted guitar as he impersonates a certain demagogue (“I alone am the answer / I alone will make wrongs right”).
After a strong start comes a mid-album stumble. ‘Tripping Along’ has a steely, echoing guitar and soothing melodic contours but feels underdeveloped, while ‘Your Ghost’ descends into a yodelling racket fit for a low-budget Spaghetti Western.
In the spirit of breaking habits, The Decemberists enlisted John Congleton (who’s worked previously with Lana Del Rey and St. Vincent) to produce the album. On Starwatcher’, with its unnecessarily beefed up marching drums, or ‘Cutting Stone’, with its bobbing bass groove, Congleton’s hi-fi production value feels incongruous with Meloy’s songwriting. ‘Sucker’s Prayer; has the feel of a church band drunk on the communion wine, its lazy sway punctuated by a bluesy hook so comically hackneyed it seems as if it would turn to camera, doff its cap and wink. Closer ‘I’ll Be Your Girl’, as the name suggests, is a fey campfire tune set to a gloopy Rhodes piano.
And then there’s track seven. At concerts Meloy often jokes about this or that song being the worst he’s ever written. Now he’s surpassed himself. ‘Everything Is Awful’ is aptly titled: it really, really is. A Morrissey parody with Abba-lite backing vocals and crashy power chords – topped off with some maudlin “la la la-ing” – it feels an eternity at just three minutes and 20.
‘We All Die Young’ has a good go at rivalling ‘Everything Is Awful’, combining a lumpen twelve-bar-blues strut, distorted vocals and a lame call-and-response. They’ve even forced a children’s choir to blurt “we all die young” back at them. Poor fuckers, they’ll wish they had.
But then there’s ‘Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes’, the album’s sparkling 8-minute highlight. For the first time on I’ll Be Your Girl Meloy’s storytelling comes to the fore. Taking its narrative from a Slavic folk tale of a siren-like water spirit, Meloy’s poetic imagery unravels over slow cavernous piano chords and booming toms, before a mid-song tempo shift prompts some jolty hard-rock riffing. A song that captures the same sweeping prog-folk grandeur as 2006’s The Crane Wife, ‘Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes’ is The Decemberists at their best.
Colin Meloy said the band wanted to take themselves “out of their comfort zone” on I’ll Be Your Girl, and it certainly sounds like it. It’s understandable and laudable to experiment with different styles after 17 years in the same band, but at times I’ll Be Your Girl comes across as a great alt-folk band pulling off a mediocre LCD Soundsystem impression. It would be harsh to accuse The Decemberists of abandoning the cause, but they’ve certainly compromised their sound.