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The Decemberists - Picaresque

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Artist: The Decemberists

Album: Picaresque

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Review date: Mar. 27, 2005

“Don’t try to figure out what music you like,” a wise man once said. “Figure out what music likes you.” The starkly polarized reactions inspired of late by the kitchen-sink pop outfit the Decemberists suggest that music lovers are grappling with the latter task, and that’s good. And yet, when such contrived, manipulative schlock inspires any reaction at all, it perhaps speaks more ill of the age than well of the listeners.

If you buy Richard Hell’s sophistry (to wit, art is artifice, we create ourselves in our own desired image, as our own heroes, and what’s wrong with that?) (and why not buy it? It’s only rock and roll…), it doesn’t much matter whether or not head Decemberist Colin Meloy is British, or how many wellsprings of inspiration he actually shares with Jeff Mangum or Stephen Morrissey. He’s within his rights to perform beneath whatever image he chooses. So let’s stamp the poseur question moot here and now.

That leaves us with the posey, on its own terms. It demands more than it offers. Over rudimentary, skiffle-derived hooks, a kitchen-sink orchestra creates an aura of portent. Then in steps Meloy, doping up the whole affair with empty melancholy until it has to breathe through a tube, wailing big words in a forced accent that conveys despair but fails to signify its cause, fails to signify anything.

All the while, this music threatens that it’s a bad emotional investment. “I am a writer / A writer of fiction… and I have written pages upon pages / Trying to rid you from my bones… If you don’t love me let me go.” “And there’s my girlfriend arm in arm / With the captain of the other team / How they love the sporting life!” Our narrators are weak human beings, forced into action with their ambivalence unassuaged, unable to cut themselves away, begging their default masters to cleave the cords themselves. Or at least to momentarily put down their whips and understand the pain, the awful pain. But if there’s understanding in the Decemberists’ music, it’s of the sort that hinders transcendence. It’s understanding, if that means standing under a leak in the ceiling. It’s depression for its own sake, depression as sick humor, set to music too ironically poppy to tender the barest catharsis. Music bloated with McCartneyian music-hall pretension, to boot.

Along with the resurgence of Morrissey, the Decemberists’ large speck on the radar suggests a desire to see self-pitying LiveJournal entries writ large, on a Dickensian scale. Maybe that means sad, pseudo-intellectual solipsism is a newly minted rite of passage, that Plath lives and Douglas Coupland looks alarmingly healthy. I don’t think this sort of mopery has always been a natural side-effect of youthful bourgeois naiveté. Then again, maybe it only means that the Decemberists’ music isn’t rock and roll, and doesn’t like me.

By Emerson Dameron

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