I have a love/hate relationship with this time of year. When I’m not becoming suddenly aware how much I enjoy the cold or looking cynically yet semi-excitedly at some sort of birthday festivities, I’m sitting at my computer for endless hours, attempting to create a vacuum around myself in order to churn out papers, articles and whatever else might be due at the end of a semester. I would be hard-pressed to find a more intense form of existential dread than the kind I experience when becoming self-aware, at the midpoint of a term paper, that everything I’ve written is bullshit.
But still, the upside of Final Paper Vacuum Nights (as I’ve come to call them) is that I spend hours sitting in front of a computer that houses my amassed music library. And at this point the ‘manic’ to my ‘depressive’ kicks in and I realize the rush of having an exhaustive collection of my own Proustian aids at my finger tips. May and June are traditionally the months that I discover and rediscover albums, if anything, simply because I’ve got plenty of time to listen and plenty of mood swings to guide my listening habits.
The decision to write about Picaresque came about when I was doing research for a paper on one of Chicago’s most famous venues: the Metro. In 2007, the Metro turned 25 and held a concert in Millennium Park in which the Decemberists performed with the Grant Park Orchestra backing them. I put a few of my favorite songs onto a playlist and resumed my work only to find that I was stamping out cogent ideas at an alarming rate and feeling pretty good about it.
I paused at the end of a long burst of productivity and thought about the song that had just whizzed by, which is above as a sample track. “The Infanta” is a surging introduction to the world of the Decemberists, who happen to be masters of theme and setting. As with the rest of the album, this song was recorded in an old cathedral, which lends it the reverberations of an old world stampede, and the title of the album, Picaresque, refers to an old story form which satirically details the rough-and-tumble lifestyle of the proletariat. Equal parts thunder and melodrama, the band sets the stage with a distinctively bombastic sound. The cover, which is half-drawn and half-costume drama, gives the same sense of tongue-in-cheek intensity; that the whole thing is a show of the fantastic and exaggerated. And maybe there isn’t a better song to start off the journey than one blazing in on a 3-chord cavalry.
Along the same lines, “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” tells a sweeping epic of revenge with a sprawling cast of characters, complete with a dastardly seafarer, a spiteful protagonist and a giant whale. The whole affair is an extremely ambitious attempt to pull the listener directly into the world of the fantastic. Listening to it without paying attention, it’s still an easy song to tap your foot to, but if you pay more attention to the instrumentation and the lyrical narrative, it becomes a completely immersive affair. You can start to picture yourself depicting this costume drama against the paper backdrop of the front cover.
The links between Picaresque and its art aren’t very clear at first. I don’t think anyone other than literature majors and trivial pursuit freaks would have ever known the meaning of the title right away. But as with all Decemberists albums, it’s all in the details. Seemingly without breaking a sweat, the band has crafted an exceptionally accurate representation of a haughty swashbuckling era. If you don’t pay attention, its still a good album. If you do a little reading, it only gets better.
Artist: The Decemberists
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)