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Review: The Decemberists, 'I'll Be Your Girl'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.


Every band needs to refresh and reconsider its sound sooner or later, no matter how sharp it's gotten over the course of a long career. Creative stagnation comes for us all — even The Decemberists, a band whose records have always come bursting with verve and verbosity.

I'll Be Your Girl, the group's eighth album in 17 years, doesn't upend every weapon in The Decemberists' arsenal: Colin Meloy still writes disarming, thematically ambitious songs while maintaining a thick fatalistic streak. But the record does steer its sound in unexpected directions, thanks in part to new producer John Congleton, who's known for his dense and busy arrangements. Especially in the album's first half, the new songs often revolve around the smeared-out thrum and menacing pulse of Jenny Conlee's synths, which conjure images of many '70s and '80s pop stalwarts.

As a lyricist, Meloy seems emboldened on I'll Be Your Girl, especially in dark, self-explanatorily titled barnburners like "Everything Is Awful" — surely the jauntiest song ever to bear that title — and "We All Die Young." The latter is especially rousing, with its stomping/clapping percussion, a chanting children's chorus and a saxophone solo. Elsewhere, the ambition that led The Decemberists to record a rock opera resurfaces in "Rusalka, Rusalka/The Wild Rushes," which builds from a plodding dirge to a grandiose, satisfying epic in the course of more than eight minutes.

Since the beginning, The Decemberists' music has been subject to the whims of Colin Meloy, who's led the group down many side roads when he's not writing children's books or recording solo EPs full of Shirley Collins, Morrissey and Sam Cooke covers. But I'll Be Your Girl captures a collaborative spirit that keeps the band sounding vibrant and alive, even as it delves into themes of futility and darkness.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)