The Decemberists took a strong swerve with their last outing, “The Tain,” transforming themselves from essentially Bell & Sebastian, Pacific Northwest Division to an explosive, library-dwelling Sabbath-style multi-headed monster, unafraid to rock out the history books on occasion. The change was stark but organic, abetted by producer Chris Walla, to whom the band returned for the production of their third full length, “Picaresque.”
The album has “breakthrough” written all over it. Walla’s hand in the overall sound may play a part in this; like on “The Tain,” Walla seems to be able to coax out more unruly swagger in head Decemberist Colin Meloy’s previously restrained singing and arrangements. “Picaresque” shows a melding of the musical adventurousness of “The Tain” with the lyrical virtuosity and charm of the Decemberists’ previous albums.
“Infanta” kicks things off with a rollicking drumbeat from Rachel Blumberg, and allows Meloy to flex his formidable vocabulary in describing the colorful procession of the titular child princess. “We Both Go Down Together” is a vaguely Morrissey flavored tale of forbidden rags-on-riches love, featuring the far and away best boast of 2005 so far, “I come from wealth and beauty/Untouched by work or duty.”
Elsewhere things get more theatrical, with the climax of the album, “Mariner’s Revenge Song” bringing things to a head with its strong narrative and epic length. The story revisits some of Meloy’s standard favorite themes: the suffering mother, sea-faring, and, of course, death. However, the darkness of “Picaresque” is a bit more playful than the despondency of earlier works, perhaps making a better jumping on point for the sun-dwelling set.