The first song recorded by this Portland five-piece was "Oceanside," back in 2001. Since then they've trafficked in a musical vastness that puts listeners on a cliff, staring at the waves and horizon, sobered by the smell of salt water and the inevitable voyage out to sea. On this, their fifth release, not much has changed as singer Colin Meloy and crew conjure ancient sounds and dramatic, majestic music that share a certain kinship with fellow water boys James Joyce and Neutral Milk Hotel. Which is both the cure and curse of the Decemberists.
Like other out-of-timers swinging for timelessness in these times (say, Antony and the Johnsons, Ray LaMontagne, or Jeff Hanson), the Decemberists tap a spirit that goes beyond the here and now. Their instincts are laudable, for far too much indie rock follows too many rote rules, but after a while, all the shanties, mariners, and sea references come off as shtick, so you don't know how to feel when Meloy takes off his sailor suit and uncorks one from the heart (see: "Grace Cathedral Hill" from Castaways and Cutouts). That is, Meloy sings as if he's read about life, not lived it. Still, he's capable of moments of stunning beauty, as with the suicide fantasy "We Both Go Down Together," the Aztec Cameraian "The Sporting Life," and the pointed "Sixteen Military Wives," which features the sing-along chorus of the day: "America can't say no/...and the anchorperson on TV goes, 'La-di-da-di-da-da-diddy-da.'"
One or two of these songs would sound terrific on a movie soundtrack or mix CD for your hopelessly romantic friend's spring break cruise. But taken as a whole, the album wears thin. On too much of this stuff--the interminable "The Mariner's Revenge Song" especially--Meloy's nasally voice gets all snarky and smarty-pants and suggests that he's merely, as one of his characters claims, "a writer, a writer of fictions." Call me a scurvy dog, but there is an ocean of bad fiction out there, and I want more flesh and blood from my theater.
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