The Decemberists - I’ll Be Your Girl Album Review
Few indie folk acts were able to find commercial success in the way The Decemberists did back in the 2000s, not to mention doing so without compromising their identity or unique subject matter of their songwriting. Though there’s not a single project the group released during that time period that couldn’t be considered a worthy addition to the genre, the particular stretch of The Tain through The Crane Wife remains some of the most creative works released in all denominations of indie rock. This string of releases were succeeded by The Hazards of Love and The King Is Dead, and though received with middling critical response, were both praised by longtime fans. However, with What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, critics and fans alike began to wonder if The Decemberists’ best days were behind them after criticisms that the album felt muted and tame in comparison to past works. Such is the context for I’ll Be Your Girl, the eighth studio album from a stalwart of the indie folk genre that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.
What’s most apparent on first listen of I’ll Be Your Girl is not only the heavy use of synthesizers in comparison to past releases, but just how little of an effect this has on the band’s songwriting. While the singles “Severed” and “Once In My Life” felt like the band might be incorporating songwriting techniques from 1980s synthpop artists such as New Order and Depeche Mode on this album, the rest of the album seems too afraid to dive fully into this style. Instead, the synth work here does little more than replace the richer and fuller progressive folk instrumentation The Decemberists are known for. This switchup doesn’t necessarily produce a negative result for the band, but in a decade when every other indie band is incorporating it into their style, their presence on this record doesn’t do much to breathe new life into The Decemberists’ songwriting.
Which to their credit is much better on this album than on What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. Frontman Colin Meloy’s tight and melodically rich songwriting is more immediate on nearly every track here. And while he doesn’t bring out any bells and whistles fans haven’t heard before, fans aren’t going to mind because Meloy employs them effortlessly almost with a formulaic precision. Which may sound like a bad thing until careful listeners return to past albums and realize these same techniques have been utilized all throughout the group’s discography.
However, what makes these techniques finally feel formulaic on I’ll Be Your Girl is that it feels like The Decemberists never considered how all these tracks would work together when writing this album. Each song feels like it was pulled off of some other alternate dimension Decemberists album and was thrown onto I’ll Be Your Girl without trying to tie a cohesive thread between them outside of the use of synthesizers. Case in point, the best track on here “Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes” is a classic Crane Wife era progressive folk track that takes up nearly a fifth of an album the band and their record label touted as the band’s foray into synth-driven music.
I’ll Be Your Girl cements that The Decemberists haven’t fallen off from being able to write great songs or weave their unique personality into catchy songs. Instead, it confirms what was dormant on their last album but only made clear here: The Decemberists don’t know what kind of album they want to make anymore. They’ve stopped approaching their albums with a uniting conceptual idea that made their past releases great full-album experiences even when they would utilize the same techniques for writing a great song multiple times on the same album. Now those formulas and tricks are laid bare on these tracks, with no overarching theme or concept grander than itself to play into. I’ll Be Your Girl is a collection of tracks that don’t amount to anything greater as a whole that their individual parts don’t achieve on their own.
While I’ll Be Your Girl is the second in a sequence of albums that fall short of the high standard the band set for themselves in the past, I’ll Be Your Girl won't leave listeners without hope for the ragtag group of indie folksters to make a comeback. They corrected some of the shortcomings of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World and tracks like “Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes” prove The Decemberists can still write songs as good as their classics. They just need to wait to return to the recording studio again until they have a subject or theme they can write 40-plus minutes of music on.
Chandler Copenheaver is a senior majoring in public relations. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Senior / Public Relations