by Stephanie Duncan
The title of the album is enough to give you a glimpse of what it's about (Picaresque is a writing style that originated in Spain and depicts clever, roguish adventures). It's apparent that they love to play this stange pop music lavished with violins, acoustic guitars and whatever else seems to have fallen into their laps. The instumentation works about the same as the lyrics; strange. As if they have dreams and wake up and write them down. They are, at their very least, original. The keyword to describing this album should be 'theatrical'. Rather than exploring personal lyrical nuances, Meloy constantly tests his mettle as a storyteller and deftly weaves tales with bold, bawdy imagery. If this fair could be called "typical", it is of the Decemberists. They manage to craft love songs in the 19th century, sea shanties and the feeling of old Europe.
The intro to 'Picaresque' is that of the Infanta. It gallops at you with opulent orchestration and subtle horns with Meloy's voice riding high above it all. As noticeable and different as his lyrics are Meloy's vocals-- nasal and bittersweet with a strange British affectation. The Decemberists themselves demonstrate a keen knowledge of instrumentation by putting the right pieces in the right places to give everyhting a full and elborate sound. 'The Sporting Life' seems like it could fast become an anthem for anyone that chooses music or books; I'm sure we've all felt the shame of failure at sports and they crafty a catchy, single-worthy song replete with picked banjos and jangling tambourines. Not bourne of normalcy is the Bagman's Gambit, a sweet and compelling lovesong. It builds upon the soft acoustics to swell and then soften oce more, the strains of violin floating along. 'The Mariner's Revenge song' is the epic sea shanty we've all been waiting for. It was only a matter of time before a song such as this reared it's head after something like 'The Tain'. It seems surprising that they have not yet touched upon the premise of a concept album. Even on the lyrically minimal 'My Own True Love Lost at Sea', they prove they can make a starkly stunning statement regardless.
'Her Majesty The Decemberists' abandoned a moody dreamy alt-country (here i dreamt i was an architect, odalisque) to explore a theatrical, lyrical album in 'Castaways and Cutouts'. While they continue to plug away at this genre, the overall vastness of their sound keeps it from sounding trite and overplayed. They know which direction they are going. It's hard to categorize a band such as this but one might call it "smart pop" as Meloy employs his vast vocabulary. It has its accessibility, though. The beauty of the music is what should extend the hand to new listeners. It doesn't take a genius to appreciate how breezily they pull off their quirks. While they may fall into the strange niche they have managed to carve out for themselves, the Decemberists seem to be a sharp enough band to avoid falling into tired repetition.