Since Picaresque was released eight days ago, and I made clear my eagerness to listen to it clear by writing two posts on the music video of "16 Military Wives" (here and here), you, noble reader, may have wondered, why haven't I posted about the album itself? Was it so mediocre I felt forced to hide my love for the Decemberists in shame?
Of course not! I delayed this review for two reasons:
2. We Both Go Down Together: Despite originally not liking this song, this tale of lovers from disparate economic backgrounds leaping headlong from a cliff into the sea has grown on me.
3. A scene from Eli, the Barrow Boy (the title character passing under a tamarind) is shown on the cover of the album. This song is decent. While it could conceivably become one of my favorites in time, it is not right now. It is a good song, but it just does not appeal to my current mood.
4. Every preview of the album I read before I received it mentioned The Sporting Life, giving me unnaturally high expectations (I assumed that it was the best track on the album). Like the previous track, it's cool, but does not really resonate at this time.
5. The Bagman's Gambit was a bit of a disappointment. Pitchfork has this to say about it:
"The Bagman's Gambit" conjures a compromised U.S. government, a D.C. where everyone is for sale, as a backdrop for the story of a government official in love with a spy. Meloy's acoustic guitar is delicate here, while the band churns a car-chase momentum climaxing in a nightmarish freakout that sounds like Manchurian Candidate dementia triggered by "A Day in the Life".
8. The Engine Driver is where this rule falls apart. The track is genuinely sorrowful, but the lyrics are nothing short of incredible. The lines from the chorus "I've written pages, upon pages, / Trying to rid you from my bones" resonate for me in a way that selling state secrets to a Russian spy for sex probably never will.
Or for that matter, male prostitution, which is the subject of the ninth track, On the Bus Mall. While Pitchfork says it is "perhaps the best song [Meloy]'s written," I would describe it as "surprisingly tolerable." I am pretty sure that the only other song about male prostitutes in my music library is Sting's Tomorrow We'll See, from Brand New Day. No offense to Sting (I don't really listen to his music that often, but the fact that he's making it, I respect that), but this song is about five times better than that track.
The other song that the previews all raved about was #10 The Mariner's Revenge Song. Although this track is almost nine minutes long, it is good from beginning to end. Even Matthew Yglesias likes it. It did leave me with the question of whether it is possible to bury someone alive while imprisoned in the stomach of a whale, but I assume that the revenge would be complete if the evil captain was killed, regardless of the nature of his death. The lyrics ("I was getting my muskets cleaned") and the picture from the lyric booklet (which looks like a stabbing; you can see it on the website of The Decemberists' current record label, Kill Rock Stars) seems to support this theory.
The last track, Of Angels and Angles, is soft, as the last tracks have been on every other Decemberists' album (except for 5 Songs, but Apology Song is the sixth track on the album, and not, in my opinion, very good). It is better that As I Rise, which ended Her Majesty the Decemberists, but not as good as California One / Youth And Beauty Brigade from Castaways & Cutouts. I think part of the problem is that it ends abruptly.