Picaresque could have easily failed. the band's employment of accordions, horns, and strings and Colin Meloy's vocal and lyrical performance could have combined to form a mirthless amalgam of thespian caricature. goodness knows i was dubious upon first glancing on the cover art and some press photos: i saw members dress like trees and emasculated high school gym students, and all with a gripping seriousness. i mean, i knew Shakespeare was absurd, but everyone also knew he was manifestly brilliant. either The Decemberists were far too infatuated with Parisian back alley theater or they knew what they were doing from the album's genesis. Picaresque would either be munificently built or annoyingly affected.
so here's why it works: behind the topically histrionic music and Colin Meloy's strangely antiquated vocabulary is a very fucking good pop album. "Pop?!?" yes, pop. because no matter how complex or literate the message is, absent the ability to communicate ideas through the multi-textual pop prism they'll simply atrophy. at their roots, just about every great album has been built on great songwriting and Picaresque is hardly any different. try listening to '16 Military Wives' with its propulsive horn section or 'The Infanta' as the percussion romps through your speakers with palpable gusto. what holds the album together is its fundamental respect of and adherence to a good song.
even the longer songs like 'The Bagman's Gambit' or 'The Mariner's Revenge Song' don't strain themselves. the length in those instances is completely incidental to the performance as neither contains a lull or plastic bridge to make it 'progressive.' now, the superstructure the band built atop the fundamentals are heavy and may even come off as heady. Meloy, who wrote all the songs on the album, has a thespian's ear for drama. Picaresque is replete with a kind of absurdist tragedy, its narratives containing fully fleshed stories with a beginning, climax, and denouement and very cinematic characters. Meloy's greatest strength by far is his ability to make you believe what he says not just as an off-handed requisite for any song, but with rapture:
And my parents will never consent to this love
Meet me on my vast veranda
sings Meloy on 'We Both Go Down Together.' impressive is the absence of context usually necessary to understanding a lyric like this, but what makes the album fantastic is that hardly any of the lyrics are totally contextual. it doesn't mean that you have license to graft at your own discretion, but the entire performance has a very admirable clarity. i admit, the narrative style may feel haughty initially, but that's before you have the chance to immerse yourself in the story and the characters. because, in the end, it isn't the particular style of Picaresque that makes it great, it's that the album's a series of outstanding songs; it's that Picaresque possesses a fundamentally great story.
Release date: March 22, 2005
Label: Kill Rock Stars
Rating: 9.0 / 10
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