Sound — 9
The Decemberists have always been a slightly odd bunch, playing a unique fusion of folk, psychedelia and prog rock. They dress like they're from the 1800s, frontman Colin Meloy looks like a Lego man with Professor Frink glasses and their guitarist is called Chris Funk. But they really have excelled themselves here. Previous album The Crane Wife saw the band move slowly away from folk to a rockier direction but they've gone all out this time, producing what has to be the most outright insane album of 2009. Over the course of an hour they get through 17 tracks, ranging in length from 29 seconds to nearly 7 minutes, with enough interludes, preludes and reprises to make your average Genesis album sound like The Best of Snow Patrol. In addition, rather than mixing folk and prog-rock they've simply shunted the two end-to-end, which results in tracks like The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid, which cuts dizzyingly between solo voice and harpsichord, Arcade Fire-style anthemics and sleazy country-rock. The whole album is a slightly uncomfortable listen as you never really know what's going to happen next - twiddly, accordion-led folk tunes such as Isn't It A Lovely Night? give way to the arrival of a monstrous down-tuned riff or wailing solo. It seems that when The Decemberists need something a bit different, rather than sitting around a campfire learning to play the hurdy-gurdy, they plug into a wall of Marshall stacks and let rip - one of the highlights of the album is The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing, which starts with a bone-shaking guitar riff which gives way to a Led Zeppelin-esque rockout with guitarist Chris Funk and keyboardist Jenny Conlee trading solos and licks off each other.
Lyrics — 9
The album is a concept album relating to the title, meaning most songs are actually part of threads that run through the album, telling maddening tales of love gone wrong, mostly revolving around a character called Margaret and an unnamed queen. There's just as much contrast in the lyrics as there is in the music, from the almost-twee Isn't It A Lovely Night? to the dark humour of The Rake's Song, which tells the tale of a man whose wife was killed during childbirth who seeks revenge by killing all his children one by one. It shouldn't work but it does. The madness of this album extends even to the vocals - Colin Meloy handles the bulk of the vocals on the album, ranging from an Anglophile croon that could have easily come from a Medieval wandering minstrel, to cod-operatic Matt Bellamy-esque vocals on 'The Queen's Rebuke'. Female vocals also make much more of an appearance than on any previous Decemberists albums, and on 'The Hazards Of Love III' there's even a children's choir.
Overall Impression — 9
Men of A Certain Age who were educated in a public school during the 70s will love this album - not since Rush in their prime has someone come so close to an authentic swords-and-sorcery prog rock album. If Jethro Tull collaborated with Muse this would probably be the result. To really appreciate this album one has to ignore the tracklisting and, like all the best concept albums, listen to it as a continuous piece of music. Then you'll hear just how much attention has gone into this album, as each passage builds through several tracks to a crescendo then dies back down - listen over any 15 minutes of the album to hear the mandolins slowly put down in favour of a rousing Arcade Fire-style anthem or rhythmic, muted guitars which is in turn rudely interrupted by the arrival of a guitar riff that could level buildings. Even if you're generally not a folkie or a dyed-in-the-wool prog fan chances are you'll be able to find something you enjoy here. If you like anything from late Led Zeppelin and Rush to Neil Young to Muse, you'll probably find something to like here - a strong contender for album of the year.