Itï¿½s been almost two weeks and twenty-five cups of coffee and Iï¿½m still no closer to having a firm grasp on Picaresque, the third album from opera-rock (and not rock-opera) quintet the Decemberists, than I was when it arrived stuffed in a manila envelope.
But this I have figured out: These guys have a bit of soul to go with their uneasy fondness for community theater. Besides the Motown beat-jacking in ï¿½The Sporting Life,ï¿½ thereï¿½s the genuine heartstring-pulling of lead singer Colin Meloy in lines like ï¿½I am a writer ï¿½ Iï¿½ve written pages upon pages/ Trying to rid you from my bones,ï¿½ from ï¿½The Engine Driver,ï¿½ and the poor manï¿½s yearning in ï¿½Eli, the Barrow Boyï¿½ almost made me forget itï¿½s a song about, eh, a barrow boy named Eli.
Heï¿½s got other tricks, too. With vox cut from the same strained cloth as Bright Eyesï¿½ Conor Oberst and a Morrissey-summoned talent for lyrics that go down about as easy as vodka-flavored sandpaper, Meloy dupes a beautiful melody into letting him sing about runaway prostitutes in ï¿½On the Bus Mallï¿½ and God knows what else in ï¿½The Bagmanï¿½s Gambit.ï¿½ Like all good pop music, itï¿½s creepy, brave and uncomfortably catchy.
Meloyï¿½s songwriting complexities and the bandï¿½s soaring arrangements should one day give them a Modest Mouse-style breakthrough. But for now the campy role-playing resembles one of those purposely bad SNL sketches (usually the ones about community theater), and chunks of Picaresque feel (yes, pun intended) staged. But honest moments like ï¿½Of Angels and Angles,ï¿½ the quiet closer, remind us why we stay past intermission.