Friday, December 30, 2005

Albums Of The Year: Number 2

On The Engine Driver Colin Meloy declares himself "a writer, writer of fictions". Oh well, we can all say we're like that should we be lyricists, but there's little doubt that the man who called a track on their previous album I Was Meant for the Stage has an air of old-school showbiz blood in him, that of, if applied to an English setting, provincial repetory theatre and off-kilter short stories from McSweeney's monthly anthologies, or in this case leads to Meloy's belief in the story-song, previously basing songs loosely on Under Milk Wood and 18th century London. And not in the John Cooper Clarke sense either. Songs on Picaresque are set among spies, soldiers, rent boys and inside the belly of a whale. Perhaps the most outlandish thing about it, though, is that it works.

That's because Meloy clearly believes, albeit with a decent layer of English major storytelling, in doomed love. Opener The Infanta may well include the words 'palanquin', 'concubines', 'pachyderm', 'canopied', 'largesse', 'barrenness', 'phalanx', 'betrothed', 'parapets', 'rhapsodical', 'folderol', 'chaparral' (a rhyme!), 'coronal' and, oh yeah, 'infanta' (the daughter of a Spanish or Portuguese king, if you must know) but it's built on dramatic guitars and strings intertwined, widescreen ambition and dark musings. It almost seems perfectly natural to see those words on a lyric sheet. Among the scene setting and spinning out we find a deep core of true love torn apart (For My Own True Love (Lost At Sea), We Both Go Down Together), never to be fulfilled (The Bagman's Gambit's crossing the Cold War divide) or really wanted (the clients of the gay teenage prostitutes of On The Bus Mall) and on other tacks This Sporting Life's Lust For Life reference against a refraction of the brain over brawn mindset via a failed, fallen athlete of some stripe and Sixteen Military Wives' oblique skewering of governmental hawks and unthinking bandwagoners alike. Meloy clearly finds an affection for his personnel, helped by his harbouring one of those voices that you wouldn't recommend to Louis Walsh but convey the raw emotional core and thus heighten the senses conveyed. Course, while it's all very well talking about the lyricism, songs do also usually involve music, and here the Decemberists hit a personal best, often building from careful, spacious, intimate acoustic guitar to big dramatic sweeps - Petra Hayden's addition to the line-up helps - while never becoming overblown, complementing the words and settings perfectly. The Decemberists are an ambitious band in many ways. Picaresque is where they see their high standards attained.

LISTEN IN: We Both Go Down Together
EXTRA FEATURE: Live they're quite something, we're told and The Live Music Archive attempts to prove. Meloy had words with Amazon, Inlander and the Guardian.

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