A little of what you’ll find on Picaresque, the new album from the Decemberists: a palanquin, an elephant, a king and concubine, the baron and baroness, a phalanx on camel back, a coach-and-fours, the wives of the King of Moors, folderol, chaparral and a coronal. And that’s just in the first song.
Yes, Oregon’s favorite theatrical chamber-pop quintet is back, with foppish fairytales, literary allusions and unlikely multisyllabic rhymes to spare. The album, their third, is a more than satisfying successor to their 2003 release Her Majesty The Decemberists, expanding thematically and musically on the mock-Edwardian obsessions of singer, songwriter and master of ceremonies Colin Meloy.
What is most striking about that opening track is not actually the tumble of verbal pageantry, but the surprising rumple-tum thud of Rachel Blumberg’s galloping beat. The sound on Picaresque is full and brash, much more so than on Her Majesty, and it serves Meloy’s expansive narratives well.
“It’s a lot of trial and error,” Meloy says by phone from Portland, describing the band’s sonic evolution. “It’s hard to get something right the first time. Because of a lot of time constraints, money constraints, millions of constraints, we quite hadn’t got it. And I think we’ve come closest to it on this record, that ineffable ‘it.’”
Part of the key was finding producer Chris Walla, who the band first worked with on last year’s EP The Tain, an 18-minute suite more or less based on an Irish folk saga. Walla, better known as the guitarist in Death Cab For Cutie, provided the sympathetic outside ear the Decemberists were seeking. To escape the sterility of a studio, Meloy and his bandmates — Blumberg, Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee and Nate Query — recorded much of the album live in a former Baptist church.
“We developed just a really strong creative synergy,” Meloy says of working with Walla. “We really knew what we were going for, and he then he had his own ideas, and he would kind of rein us in.”
Not that there’s anything reined in about the album’s conceits. As the full title — The Decemberists Present “Picaresque” — suggests, it is a quasi-conceptual clutch of tragicomic character sketches. Many are accompanied in the CD booklet by photos of the band members in appropriate garb and settings (they may be the only act on the indie label Kill Rock Stars to have a costume designer as an adjunct member). The protagonists include the child-queen of “The Infanta”, a lovesick “Engine Driver”, and the murderous sailor of “Mariner’s Revenge Song”.
Throw in the tamaracks and the cliffs of Dover, and it all seems a little fantastical and, not to put too fine a point on it, British, for a guy who grew up in Montana.
“I can’t argue with that,” Meloy says. “Musically I’m definitely an Anglophile. I like a lot of American music, but the style of music we play has its roots in a lot of things that came from Britpop.
“There’s also that tradition,” he continues, “which I think is a British tradition, of matching dour lyrics with upbeat melodies. I think we owe a lot to that.”
It’s certainly true that, as knowingly silly as Meloy’s songs can be, there are strains of melancholia (and probably other 19th-century ailments) running beneath. “Eli The Barrow Boy” sounds like a figure of fun, until he drowns himself in mourning for his true love. And the album’s one explicit nod to the 21st century, “16 Military Wives”, gives a jaunty music-hall bounce to a cynical assessment of the war in Iraq.
More than Anglophilia, though, Meloy says that what he’s looking for is a sense of the faraway and strange. “The subject matter deals with British things, as much as it deals with Eastern European things or Persian things or whatever, because the songs are intended to be painted on a backdrop of the exotic,” he says. “And to me, exotic places are places I haven’t been, that are different from what I came out of.”
But even for adventurers, there’s no place like home. Meloy never sounds more enthusiastic than when he talks about Portland.
“I feel very connected to Portland as a city and as a music scene,” he says. “This is definitely the place that birthed us. I even think of Portland as kind of a parent figure I’m trying to impress.”
That mission appears to be accomplished: This winter, the band for the first time sold out the city’s 1,500-capacity Crystal Ballroom.
“There’s really no music industry here,” Meloy says. “And for that reason, I think people that move here to pursue music or to pursue any kind of art, unless they’re making commercials or something, aren’t doing it to make it big, in that sleazy way that would make somebody move to Nashville or Los Angeles.
“Plus it rains a lot, so you have an excuse to stay indoors.”