Album: I’ll Be Your Girl
Artist: The Decemberists
Released: March 16th, 2018
Highlights: Severed, Sucker’s Prayer, We All Die Young, Rusalka Rusalka / Wild Rushes
After “The Hazards of Love”, released in 2009, it was obvious The Decemberists had a problem. It is not that the album qualified as a grand culmination of their sound and as a masterpiece that would be hard to surpass; actually, not only was it a pretty irregular record, but the label of career magnum opus was also far more suiting for its two predecessors, “Picaresque” and “The Crane Wife”. The problem The Decemberists had to tackle following that album was that, with it, the band had taken their opulent, epic, wordy, and charmingly highbrow brand of folk to its ultimate extreme of grandeur: a lengthy rock opera. Therefore, what was – from the get go – a journey in which big narratives, occasionally loose structures, and lush instrumentation got increasingly more ambitious had reached a peak; and, like all summits, the sole exit it offered was downwards. The Decemberists, naturally, took it, and along the descending path they slowly stripped their music off many of its defining traits, consequently unearthing a safe, accessible, and mostly great country record (“The King Is Dead”), and a generally unremarkable folk rock work (“What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”) that failed to stand out within the overcrowded genre despite its value.
“I’ll Be Your Girl” is the continuation of that trek, and yet another shot at solving the nagging question of where to go next. What The Decemberists do here, though, is throw synthesizers at the problem, and – as it turns out – decorating bland and stripped down folk rock with the electronic instrument does not make the wolf at the door go away: it merely changes its appearance. Within a bubble, “I’ll Be Your Girl” is by no means awful: most of the songs packed into it are melodic, catchy, fun, and carry a bounty of hooks. Additionally, in order to better integrate their folk mannerisms with the synthesizers that dominate the record, Colin Meloy and his crew mostly drop their acoustic tools in favor of electric ones, hence giving birth to unexpected praiseworthy moments in The Decemberists lore, such as the low guttural guitar riff of “Severed” (which would not have sounded weird, if played with more punch, in a Black Sabbath album) and the traditional blues riff that backs the joyful sing-along chorus of “We All Die Young”.
The downfall of “I’ll Be Your Girl”, ultimately, is that it is a The Decemberists album. As such, in the opener “Once in My Life”, when Meloy takes on the role of a character who pleads to the heavens for a sole success after a lifetime of failures, one expects a gripping tale describing a series of situations in which hope was shattered into sorrow; what listeners get, instead, is five minutes of a self-pitying chorus, punctuated by electronic synth-heavy instrumental interludes, that is repeated so much it goes from decent to grating. That theme reappears through a good portion of the album; personages that could have had their lives transformed into deep stories – like the suicidal man of “Sucker’s Prayer” or the killer of “Cutting Stone” – are left undeveloped, and the brief straightforward nature of the songs makes them over-reliant on choruses that sometimes backfire, either due to sheer annoyance (“Your Ghost” and “Everything Is Awful”) or exaggerated repetition (“Once in My Life”).
There are saving graces to be found in “I’ll Be Your Girl”. Among a couple of other instances, the sunny Californian vibe of the instrumentation of “Sucker’s Prayer” cleverly contrasts with the dying wishes of its narrator, proving the humor of Colin Meloy (a man occasionally capable of singing about tragedies with a tongue in his cheek and using words that send all his fans towards the nearest dictionary without coming off as a unlikable pedant) is still intact. Furthermore, the glorious eight-minute two-part piece “Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes” showcases The Decemberists doing what differs them from the rest of the indie folk crowd; that is, using a complex song – which goes from a piano ballad to an explosive coda – grounded in the genre’s traditions to tell a detailed story. Despite the bright moments it carries, “I’ll Be Your Girl” is not only a little bit too generic for its own good, but it also comes off as the work of a group unable to move to new musical grounds without losing its identity. If The Decemberists are able to find that balance, though, down the line the album may be seen as a fun, quirky, and flawed detour by a band in search of a new summit to climb. For now, it is nothing but the pleasant – yet generic – folk rock of “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” with a load of synthesizers added to the formula.