Headed to St. Louis, Decemberists explore new sound on latest album

By Alan Sculley
For the Call

 The Decemberists’ 2015 album “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” opened with “The Singer Addresses His Audience.” In that song, the character tells his fans he realizes they don’t want his band to change, yet he feels artists have to change.

 Despite those words, the album was not a musical departure for the Portland, Ore.-based band. Its songs maintained the acoustic-laced blend of English folk and rock that is the Decemberists’ signature over a career that now includes eight albums in a span of 18 years.

The song’s irony is not lost on Decemberists frontman and primary songwriter Colin Meloy.

“That’s the funny thing about that record,” Meloy observed in a phone interview. “I feel like it established this thesis, even though I’ve said that’s not really my voice. It’s sort of just an imagined work and a different performer saying that.”

 Perhaps without fully realizing it, though, Meloy had a sense years earlier what would come next for his band. On the newly released Decemberists album, “I’ll Be Your Girl,” the band does exactly what “The Singer Addresses His Audience” promised by giving their sound a notable makeover and throwing a few new wrinkles into their music.

 “I think mostly for this record, it’s not that I necessarily felt that a change had to happen,” Meloy said. “But I feel like we were kind of compelled to do something, if not for any other reason, to make the process more exciting and more interesting to us (so) we don’t really necessarily know the outcome as we’re working on it, where everything is a little bit mysterious and we’re liable to take big risks.”

 The most notable shift comes with the weaving of a synthesizer as a prominent instrument into several songs, including “Severed,” “Once In My Life” and “Cutting Stone.” It’s an instrument not often featured this way on the band’s earlier albums and gives the new  album a bit of a 1980s synth-pop/Roxy Music-type dimension.

 That isn’t an influence one would have expected from the Decemberists, but Meloy said the music that inspires him isn’t always obvious in his band’s songs.

 “I think from the outset we sort of set ourselves as this band that was playing, I think, with more acoustic instrumentation and we were shying away from more electric stuff,” he said. “But that’s not to say that (synth-pop) music wasn’t an important part of what we did or the music that I grew up listening to, that informs the songs I do, that I write.”

 Beyond the rise of the synthesizer within the Decemberists’ sound, there are also a few songs that break some stylistic ground. “We All Die Young” is a grooving rocker that could fit on an album by 1970s glam rockers T. Rex. “Everything Is Awful” is a delightful pop tune accented with playful female backing vocals that flit and flutter around Meloy’s lead vocal and transform what would have been a fairly straight-ahead arrangement into something far more fun and multi-faceted. Female backing vocal bits also enhance “Your Ghost,” a galloping rocker that includes a nice twist with an unexpected edgy keyboard solo.

Considering that the Decemberists have made a strong musical statement with “I’ll Be Your Girl,” it’s no surprise that the new album figures strongly into the group’s live show.

 “We’ll be playing a lot of songs off of the new record, obviously,” Meloy said. “We’re really excited to do that. But then, I think we’re also kind of going to be playing a lot of old songs, maybe messing with arrangements a little bit. We do have some surprises for the ‘Mariner’s Revenge’ song, which is a song that we have played almost non-stop since it was written in, I think it came out in 2005. We have some new surprises for that one.”

The Decemberists will perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 25, at the Peabody Opera House, 1400 Market St. Tickets start at $38.50.

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