"Here she comes in her palanquin/ on the back of an elephant/ on a bed made of linen and sequins and silk."
So starts "Infanta" from the Decemberists' forthcoming full-length, Picaresque. Beautiful imagery, even if you have to look up "palanquin."
Frontman Colin Meloy considers Picaresque the band's most ambitious effort yet. Recorded in an old Baptist church, each song, like most of Meloy's songwriting, focuses on archetypal characters, some historic, some modern.
Previous full-lengths Castaways and Cutouts and Her Majesty, as well as an 18-minute EP called The Tain, were cohesive albums with recurring characters and over-arching themes. But Picaresque is a different creature all together.
"I like to view it as a collection of songs," says Meloy.
As their career progresses, the Decemberists' sound has grown more distinct. Meloy's lyrics, while from the outset hyper-literate and articulate, have begun to build worlds, much like a short-story writer or a novelist.
One of the finest on the album is "On the Bus Mall," set in the band's current residence of Portland, Ore., where two runaway prostitutes lament lost innocence, backdropped by a landscape of drug-addicts and hookers at the bus stop.
These are pop songs that won't get radio play. They're too different, Meloy's nasally voice too close to that of Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Magnum, the lyrics too full of words like "chaparral" and "pantaloons."
Consider the range of characters on Picaresque-from the incredible "Eli the Barrow Boy" to "The Engine Driver" to the sailors from "The Mariner's Revenge Song." These are characters who probably don't exist in modern times, yet somehow Meloy manages to make the thoughts and lives of these obscure archetypes resonate.
He imagines Eli: "Below the tamaracks he is crying/ "Corncobs and candle wax for the buying!'/all down the day."It's unfortunate that a band this well put together and talented probably will only reach those who seek out strong lyrics, distinctive sounds and three-and-a-half-minute pop songs that actually build image-driven worlds, worlds that shape up and move around in your head, even after the music's stopped.