Her Majesty by The Decemberists (Review)

A masterpiece of scope, imagination, and execution.
Her Majesty - The Decemberists

The Decemberists’ sophomore record is one of those rarest of things — an album that lacks the immediate pop appeal of its predecessor but is nonetheless far superior track for track to what preceded it. If you’re going to pick up Her Majesty, be aware that it will most likely take 4 or 5 listens before it really sinks in. But once it does, you’ll be a Colin Meloy convert for life.

To trot out an overused comparison, Colin Meloy is to The Decemberists what Jeff Mangum was to the Neutral Milk Hotel: an idiosyncratic, giddily poetic ring leader to an off kilter creaking, wheezing circus. This is not to imply, however, that The Decemberists are anything approaching a Neutral Milk Hotel clone. Meloy’s talent is purely his own, but it’s just that creative forces of this type are so rare that Mangum is literally the only other one to come to mind (though I suppose you could make a case for the Mountain Goats’ John Darnelle), hence the extremely over-used comparison.

A darker and more subtle record than Castaways and Cutouts, Her Majesty is undoubtedly Meloy’s finest work to date. For the first time in their brief career, The Decemberists have had access to a proper studio and producer (Adam Selzer, whose fingers are all over pretty much every good record to come out of Portland these days) and it shows in richer tones, more extravagant arrangements, and a finer attention to detail.

Meloy’s tunes swing from stripped back acoustic musings — the stunning “Red Right Ankle” comes to mind — to more baroque, seemingly Bacharach-inspired lush pop numbers. Instrumentation ranges from basic guitar/bass/drums numbers to strings, horns, and a healthy dose of accordion, with the band never missing a beat along the way. Hooks and melodies are deceptively simple and maddeningly memorable. These are the kinds of tunes you find yourself humming days after you last heard them.

Solid though the music is however, the real star here is Meloy and his staggering gift with words. This man can flat out write. Whether building complex worlds of love and loss, off-kilter and out-of-time characters, or simply playing with nonsense, Meloy’s writing is staggering. The man has a historical fixation that has him setting tunes of Victorian England and the trenches of World War One beside more contemporary fare, and as staggering as the scope of his imagination is, it pales beside the sheer craft he exhibits in setting his visions to words.

Need an example? “We set to sail on a packet full of spice, rum, and tea-leaves,” opens the album. “We’ve emptied out all the bars and the bowery hotels. Tell your daughters Do not walk the streets alone tonight.’ Tell your daughters Do not walk the streets alone tonight.’ ” Meloy kicks things off with the sort of drunken sea shanty that only he would attempt. We then move on to the turn of the century and a listless youth ogling his neighbor (“A gentle breeze will leave his pants in disarray and at his ankles laid”), the hollowness of L.A. life, a gymnast, a drowned woman, a World War One infantryman, and a chimney sweep.

Sandwiched in the middle of the record is what must stand as Meloy’s finest piece of work, the haunting “Red Right Ankle.” “This is the story of the boys who loved you,” comes that song’s final, mournful verse, “Who love you now and loved you then. Some were sweet, some were cruel and snuffed you. Some just lay around in bed. Some had crumbled you straight to your knees, did it cruel, did it tenderly. Some had crawled their way into your heart to rend its ventricles apart.”

Her Majesty is quite simply a masterpiece of scope, imagination, and execution. There is nothing here that needs changing or improving upon.

Written by Chris Brown.

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