The Decemberists do a very particular thing – darkly ornate, literary-minded, self-consciously verbose Anglophile prog-folk-rock – exceedingly well, so well that you can’t blame ’em for wanting to do something else. They do just that on I’ll Be Your Girl, at least in parts, the upshot being, well, a re-affirmation of that particular thing they do exceedingly well.
In a robust artisanal pop marketplace (the Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, the Head and the Heart, etc.) where bands might look to U2 or Coldplay as pop-crossover models, our gang stick closer to what used to be called “the left of the dial,” when there was a dial. “Once in My Life” (rhymes with “could just something go right?”) is a sad sack anthem so archetypal, it’s comically uplifting, Morrissey-style sentiments with soaring New Order synths and a Peter Hook-ish bass melody. “Severed” frames the thoughts of an aspiring old-school mass murderer with click-track-tempo beats and industrial-strength guitar noise, while “We All Die Young” is a surrealist glam stomp with a children’s chorus. Both feel too calculated by half. More promising shapeshifts are “Everything Is Awful,” an Abba anthem for the Trump era that rises to a snarly crescendo of “la-la-la”s, and the touching, reverb-y title track, a thematic nod to Prince’s “If I Was Your Girlfriend” via Buddy Holly. But the highlight may be “Rusalka, Rusalka/The Wild Rushes” a bifurcated eight-minute prog-folk-rock ballad about a moony young lover following a siren’s song to a watery grave. It’s what might be labeled a Decemberists stock-in-trade, with no apologies needed.