Picaresque showcases a sunnier and poppier Decemberists; unlike Her Majesty, the best songs here are often when they depart the furthest from the previous Decemberists’ style. These songs are often less complex – apart from the multi-part ‘The Bagman’s Gambit’ and the lengthy ‘Mariner’s Revenge Song’, they’re largely conventional verse/chorus structures. The group also use more outside musicians than before, with orchestration, and a horn section on ’16 Military Wives’. The net result is The Decemberists’ most accessible album yet – with less archaic lyrics and less braying vocals, some of these songs sound like they could be potential radio hits.
The most accessible material includes the gorgeous, acoustic ‘The Engine Driver’, with its harmonised “If you don’t love me/Let me go” chorus, and ‘On The Bus Mall’ which mines a similar acoustic vein. Less characteristically, ’16 Military Wives’ and ‘The Sporting Life’ are both upbeat and infectious, the former with nonsensical lyrics, a Fender Rhodes groove, and a punchy, horn driven chorus , while the latter feels like a Decemberists’ take on a sixties Motown groove. ‘The Infanta’ does a much better job of the dramatic album opener than ‘Shanty For The Aretheusa’ did on the previous record, while ‘We Both Go Down Together’ is punctuated by a beautiful string part. There is one major misstep on Picaresque in the form of the nautical shaggy dog tale ‘The Mariner’s Revenge Song’; while it is entertaining, it is very reliant on its narrative for effect, so that it doesn’t stand up to repeat listens.
Like The Decemberists’ previous full length album, Picaresque can be frustrating – there are some genuinely inspired songs here, but it’s more patchy than it needs to be from a vibrant band seemingly at the peak of their powers.