"When you've been a band for 17 years, inevitably there are habits you fall into," says Colin Meloy of The Decemberists. "So our ambition this time was really just to get out of our comfort zone. That's what prompted working with a different producer and using a different studio. We wanted to free ourselves from old patterns and give ourselves permission to try something different."
With their eighth full-length studio album, I'll Be Your Girl, the Decemberists-lead vocalist and guitarist Meloy, guitarist Chris Funk, keyboardist Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query, and drummer John Moen-along with producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Lana del Ray) explore new approaches to making music and broaden their sonic range. It's the Portland, Oregon-based group's first album since 2015's What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (which charted in the Top Ten and included the #1 AAA single "Make You Better"), though in the time since, they released the EP Florasongs; a 10th anniversary limited edition vinyl box set of their 2006 Capitol Records debut The Crane Wife; their own crowd-funded board game Illimat; The Queen of Hearts, a GRAMMY-nominated collaboration with Olivia Chaney under the name Offa Rex; and "Ben Franklin's Song," the first of Lin-Manuel Miranda's monthly "Hamildrops" of bonus material from Hamilton; as well as launching Travelers' Rest, a two-day musical festival of their own curation in Missoula, Montana.
As busy as they have been, the band felt a need to shake things up. "On the last record," says Meloy, "there were moments when I thought I was making familiar choices. I tried to be mindful in the songwriting process of challenging myself and being a little more critical. The idea was, how can we make unfamiliar choices, turn off the light a little and grope around in the dark a bit?"
The band took some of the new material on the road and worked out initial arrangements, but didn't want to lock into ideas too quickly. Meloy points to the song "We All Die Young" as an early example of how the songs on I'll Be Your Girl transformed through the process. "It was initially a Leonard Cohen rave-up, like his song ‘Passing Through,' but on stage it was turning into a more bluesy rumble," he says. "Then when we got in the studio, John was like, ‘what if it were more like a Jock Rock song?' And that immediately made sense-but we had to be open enough to hear that."
This radical reworking set a new course for the project. "All of a sudden, we were talking about music and our references," says Meloy. "It kept coming back to Roxy Music and early glam, and we dove in with that in mind.
"The Decemberists are a record-collectors' band, we're all fans and scholars of music, so there a lot of touch points that we all get, but they don't always come through. So we were trying to embrace that Bryan Ferry aspect, that kind of set the tone."
Previous Decemberists' records like The Hazards of Love or The Crane Wife have been structured around thematic or musical concepts, though Meloy maintains that ultimately, it's always "our frame of mind that ties them together." This time, he says, the songs share a mood that's steeped in our current times and condition-"exuberant nihilism, an apocalyptic dance party was what we envisioned."
Most blatant is "Everything is Awful" a straight-up, high-energy lament for the world in 2018. "I wrote it immediately after the election," says Meloy. "It was just how I felt and how a lot of people felt, and how I still feel. It was therapeutic-I wanted to just shout that out. I had my particular soapbox and wanted to use it."
Not that he thinks the tone of I'll Be Your Girl is wildly different from the Decemberists' usual work. "I don't think I've ever written with a sense of optimism," he says with a laugh. "My songs all tend to the dark side. But I think this record draws some ironic humor out of that. It's not a negative record. It's intended for a shared experience of disgust and cynicism with the country today."
The songs on the new album were being written while the band was recording The Queen of Hearts, an adventurous collaboration with English singer/multi-instrumentalist Olivia Chaney released under the name Offa Rex. That record, which NPR called "a match made in folk-rock heaven," has been nominated for a GRAMMY in the Best Folk Album category.
Working on the Offa Rex album, Meloy says, was a way to "exorcise the folk out of me and get a bit more of a clean canvas" for the next Decemberists' album. "It was an opportunity to explore that side of our music to its fullest, and then be able to start with a feeling of fresh ideas."
One notable element of the new songs is the concision of Meloy's writing, a sharp focus that led to seven of the eleven songs clocking in under three-and-a-half minutes. "I've become more economical as a songwriter as I've grown older," he says. "In the past, I tended to go on a little bit. Some of these came out and just felt finished without that extra bridge or extra verse. If anything has changed in my writing, it's that."
The one nod to the group's history with folk-style epics is the eight-minute "Rusalka, Ruslka/The Wild Rushes," based on a traditional Russian mermaid tale. "It fits in the sense that it's a narrative piece," says Meloy, "and I think there's a lot of narrative stuff on this record. It's the kind of thing I've been drawn to since the beginning of our career."
The approach the Decemberists pursued on I'll Be Your Girl also allowed for a new sense of contribution and involvement from the other band members. "Since we were going to mix it up, everybody felt like they had more of a voice," says Meloy. "Where before it was really driven by Tucker (Martine, producer of the group's last several albums) and me, this was a more democratic, egalitarian thing."
Highlighting the input of Chris Funk and Jenny Conlee, Meloy mentions the song "Severed" as a significant team effort. "That was written as a punk song, but wasn't really working," he says. "Jenny set this arpeggio throughout it, and it became like an early New Order song. And I had forgotten that when we made the demo, I also started a file to turn it into more of a Depeche Mode song-I actually wanted it to be a synth song all along."
The opener, "Once in My Life," is another track that was reconfigured by the instrumentalists. "We were playing that on the road as a folk-rock anthem thing," he says, "but bringing in that obliterating synth really took it somewhere different. The whole band really stepped up and transformed these arrangements."
I'll Be Your Girl is the sound of a veteran band finding new inspiration, a unit unafraid of challenging itself to re- connect with its creativity. "Making music is an infinite choose-your-own-adventure," says Meloy (who is also, of course, the author of a series of best-selling children's books), "and when you go down one path, the other paths get sealed off. So every time we could, we said, ‘If this is what our impulses would tell us to do, let's try to imagine it in a different way.' "