Thursday, December 7, 2006

"There are angels in your angles, there's a low moon caught in your tangles"

#17 Picaresque, The Decemberists, Kill Rock Stars, 2005

Roughly defined as having to do with prose fiction, the word "picaresque" has rascally, prankish connotations. This understanding of the adjective, no doubt, is what drove The Decemberists to name their finest album to date with it. Composed of ten disparate narratives and one fantastic love song, Picaresque has wormed its way into my top 25 in barely over a year, having the distinction of the most recent record that will grace this list. While I had both Castaways and Cutouts as well as Her Majesty, The Decemberists, I never really listened to them regularly. Though I always enjoyed their literary quality and quirky songwriting, they never really connected with me musically. So, when Sean B loaned me their third full length last spring and spoke highly of it, I thought I would give them one more try. Never in a million years would I have guessed it would become my favorite album of 2005. But it did. Melodramatic to the finish, and driven by excellent production from Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla as well as the charismatic intonation of the indubitable Colin Meloy, I let its eccentric stories be the soundtrack to my year.

To get across the literary genius, narrative smarts, and musical allure of Picaresque, here's a song by song rundown to tantalize the senses and ensnare the subconscious:

"The Infanta" - thunderous, operatic opener details the events of a princess' coronation in medieval Spain. But a dark secret lies in her past...

"We Both Go Down Together" - violin-hook laden sing-a-long describes an elicit love affair between an aristocrat and a commoner in the English past. And the song title, and chorus, is ripe with hermeneutic possibilities...

"Eli, the Barrow Boy" - quiet acoustic number oozes sullenness through the story of a young ghost who haunts the churchyard in mourning for his drowned love.

"The Sporting Life" - dancey tom-toms circle round this tale of failure on the ball field. Oh the shame to misstep in front of girlfriend, family, and waterboy.

"The Bagman's Gambit" - One of two epic (read: over 8 minutes long) stories on the record, this one focuses on espionage and liasons dangeroux between two government employees. But are the protagonists separated forever...?

"From My Own True Love (Lost At Sea)" - a forlorn lover pleads with the postman to bring him a letter from a love vanished on the waves. Will one arrive...?

"Sixteen Military Wives" - See video below for explanation and Death Cab for Cutie cameos:

"The Engine Driver" - Emotive female vocals mix with Meloy's to represent various interlocutors entrapped in relationships and vocations beyond their control. Will they be let go....?

"On the Bus Mall" - two optimistic prostitutes commiserate over a shared past and shared experiences. But do they share more than just a history...?

"The Mariner's Revenge Song" - Second epic of the record focuses on revenge in the form of an orphaned son determined to avenge his mother's death on a crusty, seafaring step-father. Moby Dick meets Robert Louis Stevenson under lots of accordion, tuba, and crazy guitar. How the story plays out is one of the best moments in recent musical memory.

"Of Angels and Angles" - a beautiful, short love song. And a beautiful way to end a most enjoyable forty-five minutes.


ATrain said...

you convinced me to overcome my initial ambivalence about this album. i listened to it again last fall whilst installing drywall in the ceiling of our 1 am, covered in white powder and exahusted, with the strains of "The Mariner's Revenge Song" ringing in my eras, I decided "Picaresque" was a very good album.

Sean B said...

This one is definitely the Decemberists' best (and that is saying a lot for me). They didn't make my top 25, and I'm not quite sure why - I fear I'm being influenced by hateful anti-Decemberists hype. Time for me to re-reevaluate.

jphillip said...

I think on 12/21 The Decemberists will be on the Colbert Report, and Colbert is supposedly going to "shred" (his word not mine) with them.