Whether as a reaction to the popular perception that they’re a bunch of pretentious hipsters, or simply to stave off middle-aged malaise, the Decemberists’s I’ll Be Your Girl finds the band feeling unusually puckish. This might have been a refreshing development if virtually all of the creative choices here weren’t so colossally miscalculated. Aiming for playful rebirth, the Decemberists instead land on cloying kitsch.
The album begins with its most nominally familiar-sounding song, “Once in My Life,” the latest in the band’s long line of heart-on-sleeve anthems. The track features their usual brisk guitar strumming, dramatic chord changes, and bellowed chorus, all complemented by a hazy synth break. But the lyrics are appallingly lazy, with singer-songwriter Colin Meloy spouting repetitive clichés like “Could just something go right?/I’ve been waiting all my life.”
The rest of I’ll Be Your Girl presents an entirely different but equally off-putting set of problems. The album’s first half finds the Decemberists attempting to graft new, synthy textures onto their usual renaissance fair-friendly folk-rock style, and while this is a potentially innovative idea in theory, it sounds like a sophomoric, pseudo-nostalgic dalliance on “Starwatcher” and “Cutting Stone.” Far from hip or fresh, the latter even features a fretless bass swooping noxiously around the mix, a 1980s relic that didn’t need reviving. Only lead single “Severed,” the album’s most stridently electronic cut, avoids the incongruous pairing of acoustic folksiness and Game Boy-style synths; the track’s tense atmospheric immersion is abetted by Meloy’s witchy imagery and Chris Funk’s snorting guitar riffs.
If these songs can be charitably written off as well-intentioned experiments, much of the album’s back end earns no such benefit of the doubt. Rather than continue the Nintendo-folk aesthetic established by the first half, which would have at least demonstrated some sonically thematic conviction, Meloy litters the remainder of I’ll Be Your Girl with novelty songs, as if the desire for mischief overwhelmed all sense of good taste. “Your Ghost” sounds like the soundtrack for a haunted-house attraction, and like the twee baroque-rock “Everything Is Awful,” it comes across as something that would get Portlandia characters booed off a musical stage. Even less palatable is “We All Die Young,” an inexplicable but clearly intentional reboot of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2,” complete with a children’s chorus.
A return to the synthesis of prog-rock and traditional folk elements that put the Decemberists on the map, the eight-minute, two-part “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes” stands in stark contrast to the rest of the album in almost every way. That includes the seriousness of tone, the thoughtfulness of the arrangement, and the delightful contrast between the bleary-eyed, theatrical piano balladry of the first part and the roiling Celtic strains of the second. By comparison, the rest of I’ll Be Your Girl feels painfully half-baked.