The Decemberists Picaresque

[Kill Rock Stars; 2005]

Rating: 5/5

Styles: folk-pop, indie pop, chamber pop
Others: Neutral Milk Hotel, Grandaddy, Kings of Convenience

The Decemberists somehow just get better and better with every release. From 5 Songs to Castaways and Cutouts to Her Majesty, each record trumps the last one in terms of quality, scope, and praise. So when it came time to release their third full-length, Colin Meloy and company did exactly what everyone thought they'd do: released their best and most ambitious album to date.

Picaresque starts off with a bang, sending "The Infanta" running out of the gates with its fist in the air and a sneer on its face. Hot in its heels is "We Both Go Down Together," creating a one-two punch that knocks you out with two of the best songs The Decemberists have ever written. From here it's hard to imagine the record going anywhere but downhill, but Meloy and his lovable band of minstrels prove they can go the distance with songs like "The Sporting Life," "The Engine Driver," and "Of Angles and Angles."

With Picaresque, Meloy proves once again that he is one of modern music's best lyricists. The subject matter on Picaresque spans from the daughter of a Spanish king ("The Infanta") to maybe the best song about joint suicide ever written ("We Both Go Down Together") to international espionage ("The Bagman's Gambit"). When "The Mariner's Revenge Song," a sordid tale of, well, revenge, starts off, you don't expect it to last almost nine minutes; and when it's finished, it ranks as the most epic song The Decemberists have done yet. And that's saying something for a band that has tackled everything from prostitutes to soldiers.

Musically, The Decemberists take their sound to the next logical step by adding even more instruments than on previous releases. But rather than cluttering the music, it actually works out well. Really well. Petra Haden's violin is brought to the fore on "We Both Go Down Together" and carries the weight of its dark melody, and the backing horn section on the bizarre math lesson "Sixteen Military Wives" is fit for a soul king.

After every record The Decemberists release, I find myself wondering where they could possibly go from here, and Picaresque is no different. It's hard to imagine The Decemberists topping such a fantastic and ambitious record, but as their previous albums show, I'm sure they'll have no problem one-upping themselves again.

1. The Infanta
2. We Both Go Down Together
3. Eli, The Barrow Boy
4. The Sporting Life
5. The Bagman's Gambit
6. From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)
7. Sixteen Military Wives
8. The Engine Driver
9. On the Bus Mall
10. The Mariner's Revenge Song
11. Of Angels and Angles