The chipper nihilism of The Decemberists’ ‘I’ll Be Your Girl’
Hanna Kennedy | Thursday, March 22, 2018
Colin Meloy and his group of Portland, Oregon, storytellers are back. No strangers to clever and complex folk, The Decemberists decided to take a new approach on their latest release. “I’ll Be Your Girl,” the group’s eighth album in 17 years, invites producer John Congleton on board and the result is a new sound for the formerly polite, modern folk-rock band.
Congleton, known for his work with St. Vincent, Swans and Xiu Xiu, brings an edge to The Decemberists’ acoustic catalogue. His dense, synthetic style can be seen mixing with Meloy’s thematically ambitious lyrics on the tracks “Severed” and “We All Die Young.” The latter is an absurd combination of cheery nihilistic lyrics, a stomp-and-clap percussion section and an upbeat saxophone solo. The most twisted part, however, has to be the children’s choir shouting the title in the background. “We All Die Young” still manages to escape the darkness one would expect. Meloy captures the general frustration of the world and turns it into a celebration of mortality. Dying young, in Meloy’s eyes, is a way of escaping the horrors of modern life and adulthood.
The irony continues on the track “Everything is Awful” as the group delves deeper into themes of futility and darkness. “Everything is Awful” is a rousing, jaunty creation that brings to mind The Lego Movie’s “Everything is Awesome.” The Decemberists’ take on the track, however, has a more political edge to it. As the song slows after the opening chorus and heads into the first verse, Meloy wonders, “What’s that crashing sound?/That follows us around?” and comes to the conclusion, “That’s the sound of all things good breaking.” He, less than subtly, expresses his contempt for the present political administration. Meloy hits on how the nation’s current president’s first year in power dismantled many of the accomplishments that the opposing party viewed as major steps forward. Yet, Meloy refuses to let feelings of futility and frustration completely strip his music of optimism and hope. The cheery sound subverts the dark lyrics, mocking the ridiculousness of the present-day political atmosphere.
Meloy is most himself on “Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes.” Nothing is more redolent of his past lyrical jumps down the rabbit hole than the album’s eight-minute-long, carefully-scripted exploration of a Slavic legend concerning a mermaid seducing men to their deaths in the sea. The album’s second-to-last track drops political pretense in exchange for fantasy and folklore. It functions as a nice change of pace and stands out as one of the album’s only narrative-based tracks — an unusual occurrence for Meloy, a published children’s book author.
The album’s closing track is the titular “I’ll Be Your Girl.” The lyrics, written and sung by Meloy, attempt to erase or flip gender as a means to question the common, seemingly simple sentiment of affection and closeness heard so often in song lyrics. The track seeks to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. A good choice to close the album, “I’ll Be Your Girl” ties up all the different directions The Decemberists explore and drive home the feeling of inclusiveness at the album’s core. “I’ll Be Your Girl” — the group’s first full-length album since 2016 — sends the message that we’re all in this together and need to make the most of what we’re given.
Artist: The Decemberists
Album: “I’ll be Your Girl”
Label: Capitol Records
Tracks: “We All Die Young,” “I’ll Be Your Girl,” “Rusalka, Rusalka / The Wild Rushes”
If you like: The Shins, Arcade Fire, Iron & Wine
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5