From the sleek, New Order-inspired opening synthesizer pattern of “Severed,” the lead single from the Portland-based indie rock institution the Decemberists’ new album I’ll Be Your Girl, it was clear what the dominant narrative surrounding the record would be.
“I didn’t want to have the discussion of this record be just about how we found some synthesizers,” singer-songwriter and frontman Colin Meloy says, slightly exasperated. “That was something we talked about while we were making it, you know, like, the ‘Oh God, the Decemberists found some synthesizers in the closet, here they are.’ It really was more deliberate and more like, ‘Does this fit with what we do?’ And I think it does.”
And the truth is, it’s hard to exclude much of anything from the increasingly eccentric ways of the group. Long known for their bookish, concept-heavy songs and records, the Decemberists’ theatrical brand of progressive folk-rock developed a reputation for its antiquarian language and instrumentation (accordion, violin, and organ are often prominent in the mix in lieu of too much electric guitar), but have only gotten weirder following their major label debut The Crane Wife in 2006.
The success of that album made the band a commercial force to be reckoned with, and from there they adventurously traversed from bombastic rock operas (2009’s Hazards of Love) to pastoral Americana (2011’s The King is Dead) while only seeming to solidify their stature.
“I think over the years I’ve come to grips with the fact that the sound of the Decemberists will be just whatever we decide that it is, you know?” Meloy says. “I think some of our best moments are those moments when we make that decision and make it in a clear way. Like maybe defying certain expectations of what we should do, but just kind of following our own love and bliss a little bit. And yeah, I feel like this is an instance of that.”
And, in a way, he’s right. There was something almost perfunctory about the band’s last effort back in 2015, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, that gets course-corrected away here. It’s often in a fairly demonstrable fashion, as when the plaintive strums of a tune like “Cutting Stone” get cut-off in a wash of synths and a danceable dream-pop groove that represents starkly new territory for the group.
“There wasn’t any discussion before the sessions that we would be making a record that would feature synthesizers so much,” Meloy insists, despite the acute left-turns of the sound. “I think we were feeling pretty agnostic, really, you know, just wanting to let the thing take shape on its own and not necessarily have a preconceived notion about what the sound should be, which is something that I think we’ve regularly done in the past — had a kind of a determination or some sort of intention.”
However, Meloy admits that, following the demoing process, the arrangements were somewhat driven by conversations around various strains of synth-heavy ’80s music that the members were fond of, from Roxy Music and Brian Eno to Kraftwerk and New Order.
“Jenny [Conlee], being the kind of mad scientist keyboardist that she is, she [excelled with that],” Meloy says. “She started out with the band just playing accordion and has, bit by bit, brought other keyboard elements into it. Initially, it was just Hammond and piano, but then all of a sudden it was pump organs and mellotrons and Farfisas, just as a lover of keyboard instruments.”
Things just kind of took off from there. “And [multi-instrumentalist] Chris Funk is just sort of a pack rat of weird instruments,” Meloy continues. “And this time around he brought in, you know, a cartload of weird modular synths and pedal synths and things like that. And Jenny had some synthesizers too. So all of a sudden we just surrounded by these tools and I think as we are working on arrangements they would kind of pitch some sort of keyboard element that wasn’t just accordion or organ or piano, which is what we’ve done in the past with trying to break out of that a little bit, sort of where we ended up.”
For all of the sonic innovations though, this is still very much a Decemberists record, with Meloy’s literary bits of meta-commentary transformed into catchy choruses and eery updates of folk tales from Slavic mythology dotting the tracklist. And that devotion to their own unique sensibilities is really what has given the band its longevity.
“I think being really out about who we were and not being cagey or you know, trying to be cool [early on], I think we just really wore ourselves on our sleeves a little bit,” Meloy says. “I would think that people recognize that. And while it may not be the cool band or the hot band — or maybe we were momentarily — but I think we were seen as a band that was doing things on their own terms, which I think has as much appeal as having a hit song on a car commercial.”