It?s always nice when a band resists the ?sophomore slump? clich?, suggesting that a band?s second album will never be as good as the first. The Decemberists did just that, though. ?Her Majesty? took all the strong points of ?Castaways & Cutouts? and improved upon them, making for an album of some of the most finely crafted and refined pop songs to break through the haze of indie rock in quite some time. The assumption, then, is that on their third record the Decemberists are finally due for a misstep but anyone who has seen the band live in the last year knows that they have only continued to develop and improve on their already established sound. With their unprecedented (and largely unexpected) success the band has only gotten more joyful and ambitious with each passing year. With ?Picaresque?, a cycle of 11 near perfect pop gems, The Decemberists have at last truly arrived.
Not surprisingly, ?Picaresque? does everything The Decemberists are good at but is somehow even more fully realized than before. The songs are full of the invented history and inviting melodies that make Colin Meloy such a treasure but now possess a confidence and emotional pull that makes a once good band now wonderfully magnetic. ?The Sporting Life? finds Meloy ably integrating his Smiths obsession into his own music without a trace of shame or undesirable imitation. Beyond that, this is such a strong showing from a band completely in control of their material it almost seems foolish to single out highlight tracks.
Indeed, the album?s only faults lie in the few instances where the band drifts from Meloy?s focused and personal songwriting into other recognizable idioms. The French accordion shtick is laid on thick during the album?s penultimate track (?The Mariner?s Revenge Song?) and, worse yet, ?The Bagman?s Gambit? ? otherwise one of the album?s strongest songs ? regrettably fades into a Philip Glass imitating string ensemble that sounds as clich?d as Glass? own music and mostly just feels unnecessary. If anything, it?s a testament to Meloy?s skill as a songwriter. The Decemberists don?t need these kinds of ramblings and deviations. It?s quite enough to hear Meloy?s songs as they are without the added adornment.
I recently saw an article somewhere that called The Decemberists ?music for grad students to make out to?. While that may be true, it trivializes a band that, even with their idiosyncrasies and unapologetic intellectualism, is ultimately a work of simplicity. ?Picaresque? is a completely genuine realization of one particularly talented band?s own imagination. How one could ask for more than that from a band, I do not know. During ?The Mariner?s Revenge Song? when one might suspect this band is overextending themselves with epic songwriting we?re gently reminded with ?Of Angels and Angles? that Colin Meloy need do little more than simply describe the day?s events ? the working of a crossword puzzle, the moon in her hair ? to create music that makes us feel good to be alive. 9/10 -- Nick Hennies (25 May, 2005)