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The Decemberists – As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again – For Folk’s Sake

The Decemberists are one of the most literate bands on the planet. Not that should be a shock since Colin Meloy is also a published author with a series of young adult books to his credit, not to mention a children’s book, a novel and a yet to be revealed theatrical project. This makes listening to the Decemberists a bit different than hearing your typical rock band. Coming in the wake of a six-year gap where the world tilted a bit more precipitously on its axis, As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again heralds a rebirth for the band.

Conceived as a double album with four distinct sides, it begins with ‘Burial Ground’ which feels quite familiar, perhaps because it exists as Meloy explains, “in that time-honoured pop song tradition, a paean to hanging out in the graveyard.” Despite that tongue-in-cheek explanation, the acoustic guitars herald familiar tones and timbres even as echoey drums, strings and a trumpet solo opening with a vaguely Spanish opening phrase move the tune into a world all their own. 

A band reinvigorated and recharged, multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, bassist Nate Query, John Moen’s drumming and Jenny Conlee’s keyboard work give every indication that they are having fun tearing into songs like ‘Oh No!’ and ‘The Reapers’. The former moves with abandon as the narrator tells a tale of mischief, marriage and murder. The latter portrays the wait confronting everyone as they wait for the fields to be reaped. Dreams are at play in ‘Long White Veil’ where Meloy recounts apparitions of a woman he marries and buries later the same day. Filled with the sounds of slide guitar it has those qualities that keep our sleeping visions moving at a brisk pace even as the mysteries continue to play out.

Throughout the 13 songs on As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again, The Decemberists keep playing with the framework of what they do and how they do it. Perhaps one of the most surprising tracks is ‘All I Want Is You’. Meloy confesses it is a love song, “An unapologetic, wear-it-on-its-sleeve love song.” In an album filled with literate tunes loaded with lines referencing Seymours, Boleyns and Fitzroys, not to mention boot-blacking labourers and antediluvian ladies, the sentiment and simplicity of this song is slightly shocking.

The Decemberists have always had a streak of willfulness, doing whatever they want regardless of the cost. ‘Joan in the Garden’ exposes those tendencies over the course of a 19-minute song that became the first single from the album. Overlong and a tad overwrought, it’s not the sort of song designed to please the record company or the media. From the loosely strummed acoustic guitars tension begins to build as keyboards shade the song growing louder with the passing of time. While a noodling section doesn’t really go anywhere, this tale revealing the dreams Joan of Arc merged with the nature of the creative process has enough moments in the opening and closing segments to win a split decision. Along the way there are guest vocals from REM’s Mike Mills adding to the mythology of this piece.

That the Decemberists can still shock and surprise us after more than 20 years is a testament to their aspirations and abilities. As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again reveals a band revelling in their renewed inspiration.

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