(Author’s note: This is the second in a series of six Retrospective Reviews we’re doing on the entire full-length discography of the Decemberists. This time around we’re taking a look at their 2003 record Her Majesty the Decemberists. If you didn’t read our previous review of Castaways and Cutouts, I’d highly recommend you do so before reading any further.)
Between Here Comes the Indian, The Lemon of Pink, Elephant, as well as “Get Low” from Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz and “Lose Yourself” by Eminem on the Billboard Hot 100, 2003 was a solid year for music. While I don’t think it had as many fantastic albums released as 2002 or 2004, 2003 holds a special place to me. I consider this year to be one of transition, the first phase of a powerful metamorphosis. Bands like Broken Social Scene, M83 and the Postal Service helped set up the unstoppable indie rock boom of 2004, while Echoes from the acclaimed dance-punk outfit The Rapture helped pave the way for LCD Soundsystem’s 2005 self-titled debut and Death from Above 1979’s excellent You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine which came out that following year.
And one band that was experiencing a metamorphosis of its own, perhaps a little less neatly, was the Decemberists, Portland’s baroque indie folk darling, who really made a name for themselves that year with a reissue of their debut LP and a brand new full-length album, which were only released a few months apart from each other. Their second LP, Her Majesty the Decemberists, was released in September of 2003 under the Kill Rock Stars record label, which has been home to several fantastic northwest artists, including Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney and the late Elliott Smith.
In contrast to Castaways and Cutouts’ mid-tempo, highly-conceptual indie folk, Her Majesty the Decemberists is an exercise in the band attempting to move in a more bold, yet accessible direction, while still maintaining some of the same charm and aesthetics of the album that came before it, but most of the time the band goes for a sound that doesn’t at all resemble anything present on Castaways. For instance, “Shanty for the Arethusa”, the opener on this thing, is a soft indie rock song that, throughout its runtime, progresses from being slow and quiet to being loud and ostentatious, and it flows through these dynamics seamlessly. It’s almost reminiscent of something Arcade Fire would’ve put on their 2004 Funeral record.
A lot of this record feels like the Decemberists responding to the endless Neutral Milk Hotel comparisons by showing that they can be more than that (which I still say they accomplished on Castaways), but listening to some songs off of Her Majesty, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the band didn’t quite push the envelope with any one new direction enough to quite achieve what they were going for. I’ll give them that a lot of songs on this record don’t just feel like a retread of the LP that came before it, but there doesn’t seem to be much to compensate for this change of pace for the band.
If anything, Her Majesty the Decemberists feels way too unfocused and capricious to have any sort of lasting appeal, and each song on here feels like it was written with a different audience in mind. “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground”, in the spirit of both the opening and closing track, is another mostly quiet, minimalist indie folk song that’s heavy on progression that manages to keep things interesting throughout its runtime; only a few tracks later, “The Soldiering Life”, which is by far the worst song on the LP, sounds like something you’d hear playing while waiting in line at a Starbucks.
One aspect of Her Majesty the Decemberists that I do like more than Castaways and Cutouts is how melodic a lot of the songs are. “Song for Myla Goldberg”, a tribute to the American novelist and her book Bee Season, although I’m not too big on the song as a whole, I really like the way the instrumentation serves to harmonise with Colin Meloy’s vocals in a very beautiful way, and the song “The Chimbley Sweep” makes great use of secondary vocals from multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee that play off of Meloy’s.
Despite Her Majesty the Decemberists being a somewhat clumsy record on the whole, there are some great songs on this LP. The first single the Decemberists ever put out, “Billy Liar”, feels like they tried their hand at creating a bubbly, upbeat radio-friendly pop song, which could’ve gone over horribly in concept, but it’s a fun, cute and unforgettable number, complete with a sing-along chorus and an almost commercial jingle-esque breakdown towards the tail-end of the track. The mellow “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” makes use of a great verses-only song structure that’s accentuated by its different takes on the song title at the end of each verse. One of the last tracks, “Red Right Ankle”, is a slow, gorgeous abstract love song that one could easily classify as an alt-country song. The track is just Meloy with his guitar, which is the Decemberists’ best possible arrangement for this type of track, I think. While on a first listen, the song’s lyrics may seem kind of free association and meandering, reading into it further shows a great deal of imagery and very sweet, romantic sentiments.
“I Was Meant for the Stage” marks a fantastic closer to the album. The song was obviously written to be a pleaser at live shows. Lyrically, Colin Meloy sings about how he was meant to be on stage, performing live, entertaining and being in a spotlight, and now here he is doing just that. For most of its runtime, the song is understated, yet showy. In the last couple minutes of the song, more instrumentation comes in and it suddenly turns into an epic, bombastic rock song, and then gradually lowers its tone until the song cuts out. If you listen to this album from beginning to end, I recommend putting this song at the very end instead of “As I Rise”, which is a decent lo-fi song, but is a very ill-fitting way to end the record in comparison.
On the whole, Her Majesty the Decemberists isn’t a bad album. What it is is inconsistent. The songwriting, instrumentation and track progression is still top-notch for the most part, but the album really seems to be aimless, with a lot of half-baked spots on the album. I can still recommend Her Majesty if you’re looking for an interesting and varied indie album to indulge yourself in, but it doesn’t do as much for me as Castaways and Cutouts did.
After Her Majesty, the Decemberists took two years off to record and work on what many (including me) believe to be their finest work. Join me next time when we bid adieu to Her Majesty and say hello to Picaresque.