Decemberists singer-songwriter Colin Meloy has a creative-writing degree, and on The Decemberists' first two albums, he often let his literary inclinations interfere with his flair for melody. Castaways And Cutouts showed more promise than the average psychedelic folk-rock debut, but the follow-up Her Majesty The Decemberists smacked of a retread, with more samey-sounding romps about ancient romantic heroes. The odd moment of pop wonder on those early records—like "Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect" on the former and "Song For Myla Goldberg" on the latter—couldn't outpace songs that sounded terminally clever and disappointingly underbaked.
Then came The Tain, last year's precocious, pretentious one-song EP consisting of a five-part suite rooted in Meloy's version of Celtic myth. The Tain should've been a disaster, but it rocked harder than any previous Decemberists release, and showed more variety over the course of 18 minutes than the band's previous two hours of recorded music. Meloy and company maintain that momentum on Picaresque, which sounds brighter and deeper than anything The Decemberists previously attempted. It has more than its share of "I was a whaler, I was a tailor" songs, but they don't seem anywhere near as goofy. The hefty amount of historical detail in "The Infanta" makes the song's breathless praise of a child king sound both majestic and desperate, while "Eli, The Barrow Boy" relates the plight of a peddler simply and poignantly. Meloy adopts the guise of outcasts hopelessly distanced from their true desire, and though Picaresque's grandest moments are the twin epics "The Bagman's Gambit" and "On The Bus Mall," the album's heart is in the lithe ballad "The Engine Driver," where no matter what persona Meloy tries on, he can't escape a loveless relationship.
The band does stumble a bit at the finish, with the relentlessly wordy "The Mariner's Revenge Song" and its too-brief coda "Of Angels And Angles," but in a way, the reminder of what The Decemberists used to do wrong makes the rightness of the rest of the record stand out. What's most impressive about Picaresque is how effortlessly certain it seems, with none of the flop-sweat and pushiness that dampens other Decemberists-style acts. Where before the band had too-obvious elements of David Bowie, Robyn Hitchcock, The Smiths, The Pogues, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Belle & Sebastian bubbling to the surface, now The Decemberists is its own entity. It's what The Arcade Fire wants to be when it grows up.