Album Review: The Decemberists, ‘As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again’

    “Break it all so we can build again,” Colin Meloy sings on ‘Joan in the Garden’, the closing track on the Decemberists’ new album, though taking the lyric out of context – it’s preceded by the typically archaic couplet “Oh holy whore androgyne/ Come and sunder the stop signs” – seems rather disingenuous. The last lines of the song also serve as the album’s title, As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again, which is a broad mantra that critics will take as a reference on the band’s anachronistic approach. It’s true that the Decemberists don’t exactly break new ground on their first release in six years – which is also the first on their own label YABB Records after nearly two decades with Capitol – but it feels less like a return to the band’s roots than a journey through their sizable discography, leaning into their proggier tendencies while focusing on concise yet lushly detailed songcraft. It easily registers as their best effort in at least a decade.

    Well, easily, but maybe not so quickly – As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again is the Decemberists’ longest-ever project, a double album split into four thematic parts. ‘Joan in the Garden’, which accompanied the record’s announcement, stretches over 19 minutes. Ambition has always been one of the band’s distinctive traits, so fans may find it oddly familiar, but what makes the record such an enjoyable listen is how invigorated Meloy and company sound. There’s a vibrant theatricality to these songs that the band usually reserves for their more conceptual offerings. ‘America Made Me’, the only song reflecting on what Meloy calls “Americanism in 2024” on a record that mostly foregoes the political underpinnings of 2018’s I’ll Be Your Girl, is jaunty yet fittingly charged by boisterous drums and subtle dissonance. Even when veering towards doom (of a more literary kind) on ‘Don’t Go to the Woods’, Meloy’s delivery is shot through with tender emotion, while opener ‘Burial Ground’ is upbeat in a way that makes its humour – “This world’s all wrong, so let’s go where we belong/ Pack up the stereo, meet at the burial ground” – sound a little less fatalistic.

    What’s changed, clearly, isn’t the subject matter of the band’s songs but the tone they strike, which is less wearied and angry than in the recent past. Like the structure of the album, which sees them reuniting with Tucker Martine after the John Congleton-produced I’ll Be Your Girl, it’s tightly balanced. Along with ‘Burial Ground’, buoying the first quarter of the record is the salsa-leaning ‘Oh No!’ and the radiant ‘Long White Veil’, which shimmers with touches of pedal steel and Jenny Conlee’s backing vocals. As is so often the case in the Decemberists’ songs, the hooks aren’t predictable so much as harbingers of the inevitable, and ‘Long White Veil’ stands among their most memorable: “I married her, I carried her/ On the very same day I buried her.”

    After the album’s opening run, the songs are just as tuneful though gradually more stripped-back, from the John Prine-inspired ‘William Fitzwilliam’ to the ‘The Black Maria’, which features a gorgeous brass section. There’s a sweetness the band seems to commit to, even when the music bows its head. But the biggest shift is a lyrical one, and it begins with ‘All I Want Is You’: “Don’t want stunning wordplay,” Meloy sings, freely undercutting the playfulness and verbosity of everything that’s come before to home in on the sincerity of its titular line. He doesn’t sound tired, exactly, just unpretentious and somewhat burdened by the weight of language, a sentiment that recurs in ‘Never Satisfied’. This retreat into a more direct, feelings-forward style makes the swirling, hallucinatory excess of ‘Joan in the Garden’ feel like not only a jarring finale, but a kind of resurrection. It swirls in intensity, disintegrates, then storms back to life, but what renders it unique in the Decemberists’ catalogue isn’t just its epic runtime, but how far they really diverge from their signature sound in that ambient middle section, which harbours the kind of wild inspiration that keeps a band pushing forward. There might only be that glimpse of it here, but the journey has been as rewarding as ever, so you’ll want to come back.

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    “Break it all so we can build again,” Colin Meloy sings on ‘Joan in the Garden’, the closing track on the Decemberists’ new album, though taking the lyric out of context – it’s preceded by the typically archaic couplet “Oh holy whore androgyne/ Come...Album Review: The Decemberists, 'As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again'