Photo: Holly Andres
Photo: Holly Andres

The Decemberists Experiment Sonically on I’ll Be Your Girl

The Decemberists are often both revered and pigeonholed as the founders of the modern folk movement – they’ve been playing accordions and wearing suspenders onstage since before it was cool (and commonplace to see) – and plenty a remark has been made about frontman Colin Meloy’s propensity to weave actual folklore into his narrative songwriting.

As bassist Nate Query astutely noted in a recent interview with On Tap, “I think early on, we were defined by the ways we were different from most bands – by having accordion and upright bass and folk instruments and songs with four-syllable words and stuff.”

But if you’ve ever seen the band live or spent a good chunk of time digging into their discography, you know that their skill, talent and creativity extends across any genre-lization. With eight full studio albums, several EPs, and a handful of collaborations and side projects under their belts, The Decemberists have proved that they are a musical force to be reckoned with – with some theatrics thrown in for fun.

The band released their latest album, I’ll Be Your Girl, this March and have embarked on the Your Girl/Your Ghost 2018 World Tour to support it. Many critics are hailing the album as a radical departure from the band’s traditional style and sound, aka the long ballads, operatics and epic poetry-type rock music we’ve become accustomed to receiving over the years.

Certainly, many of the tracks incorporate synths and techtronics, evoking a sort of 1980s video game-style, “analog” alternate reality, and producer John Congleton encouraged pushing toward the less expected choices. But it’s not as if The Decemberists of “The Upside Down” came through a wormhole to create I’ll Be Your Girl. Instead, the album simply crochets together multiple elements the band has used in the past and brings some of the less exaggerated ones to the forefront. After all, even in the most synth-heavy track, Meloy is still singing about a “cutting stone.”

“This record probably is full of some surprises for people, but really, even with this record where we branched out a little bit sonically, I don’t think we did anything we hadn’t already done,” Query says.

And yet, he adds, there is a definite art to staying both interesting and interested in making music together when you’ve been doing it as long as The Decemberists have been.

“When you’re mixing a new record, sometimes you end up building in certain challenges and parameters just to sort of make it interesting. Sometimes, you just pick up a different instrument because if it sounds different to you, [then] you’re going to get fresh ideas or sometimes, you just need to mix things up to keep it going. And I think [on] this record in particular, we tried to do a lot of that and really not be afraid to follow a weird idea down the rabbit hole.”

What is perhaps a more notable divergence from The Decemberists’ norm is the album’s obvious reflection of the zeitgeist. Rather than conjuring whimsical tales of old and allegorical references (though you’ll still find plenty of darlings and rivers and thistle in there), Colin Meloy and the band have been very vocal about how current events and the sociopolitical landscape in America influenced the making of this album.

In fact, Meloy recently described the sensation of moving from despair to humor in an interview with The Atlantic: “We’re having a very shared experience. It’s almost galvanizing, people coming out of the woodwork and saying, ‘Sh-t is f–ked up.’ There’s something therapeutic in looking at the apocalypse and laughing.”

“Everything is Awful,” for example, sounds ironically like The Lego Movie movie song “Everything is Awesome,” but with an obvious dark twist. In “Starwatcher,” an odd and ominous military-style percussion takes hold. And finally, “We All Die Young” has a trippy “Yellow Submarine” sensation with the added discomfort of having the voices of actual children on the track. And even Carson Ellis’s album artwork and accompanying short animations aren’t shy about being provocative – among other images, we see a cartoon version of Donald Trump with devil horns.

So while I’ll Be Your Girl may not be the radical sonic upheaval some have claimed, it does reiterate that The Decemberists are no amateurs. They are a skilled and experienced band influenced by both an awareness of the world around them, the lives that they lead alongside their musical ones and how all of those things are intertwined.

Query, for instance, was phoning from his son’s school where he was volunteering for the day. And while excited for the Your Girl/Your Ghost tour to bring “new stuff onstage, new things on [his] pedal board, new basses and ramping it back up after some down time this winter,” he says the band is equally excited for the opportunity to travel the country to visit spots like Red Rocks, Wrigley Field, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture – a chance to see the people and places that really are America.

Don’t miss The Decemberists at The Anthem on April 21. Tennis will open. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., and tickets start at $45. Learn more about the band at www.decemberists.com.

The Anthem: 901 Wharf St. SW, DC; 202-265-0930; www.anthemdc.com

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Courtney Sexton

Courtney Sexton is a New Jersey native who grew up between the Delaware River and the sandy Pine Barrens. She has called D.C. home for long enough to now be considered a “local”. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is the co-founder of D.C. literary reading series and writing community, The Inner Loop. She listens to a lot of music and sometimes even tries to make it. She writes a good deal about places and human relationships to them, constantly exploring the intersections of nature and culture. Her dog, Rembrandt, features prominently in her life and work.