For years, I have been aware of The Decemberists as exactly the type of band I would expect to like, hyper-literate lyrics with thoughtful song construction and an ability to combine classic pop and folk-rock. Yet whenever I heard their music, I struggled to connect with the songs. Now, after over 20 years and onto their ninth studio album, the arrival of ‘As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again, makes my previous indifference even more mystifying, as their new record is a triumph on which highlight follows highlight. It combines magnificent storytelling, epic song construction and numerous choruses to die for, together with guest appearances from James Mercer (The Shins) and Mike Mills (REM). Throughout, there is a clarity to the album, apparent in band leader and songwriter Colin Meloy’s vocal diction and Tucker Martine’s production. In my enthusiasm for the album, I do feel the zealotry of the recent convert.

‘Burial Ground’ sets a high bar in its combination of a chiming Byrds-like guitar with the melody from ‘Sloop John B’ and mournful brass, all at odds with the song’s macabre subject matter. For anyone thinking that the opening song would be an impossible act to follow, the answer is soon a resounding ‘Oh No’ as the song of that title boasts another buoyant chorus, Balkan horns, chaos at a wedding and searching questions about the sources of money in channelling the two brothers in Emir Kusturica’s film, ‘Underground’. ‘The Reapers’, replete with flute trills, sees them firmly on folk ground in a song that vividly portrays the slog of working life. ‘Long White Veil’ bursts out of the speakers with its jangling guitar which contrasts with the tragedy of the chorus (“I married her, I carried her / On the very same day I buried her / In the cemetery plot by her mother”), the perfect personification of the happy/sad song.

The second side of the album heads in a folk direction. Inspired by John Prine and a 16th Century British diplomat, ‘William Fitzwilliam’ is an historical odyssey referencing Howards, Seymours, Poles, Boleyns, Tudors and the Fitzroys and giving in to sin. The foreboding ‘Don’t Go To The Woods’ is a beautifully arranged folk ballad. ‘The Black Maria’ gives an example of their talent for setting a picture that would satisfy any novelist (“There in my memory / Just on periphery / Loose-knit like gauze on the centreline / The broke down cobblestone drive, the black maria”), the vehicle becoming a metaphor for death, while the acoustic guitar and horns are an ideal musical accompaniment, adding to the drama without overwhelming the storytelling. With its finger-picking guitar and muted horns, ‘All I Want Is You’ is a tale of devotion (“All the united nations / Couldn’t feed my sensations / Half as well as how you do.”)

‘Born in the Morning’ has a vivacity to its arrangement of guitar, harmonica and Jenny Conlee’s rollicking piano at odds with its reference to languor in the morning and once being a “troubled young canary”. The piano and brass led ‘America Made Me’ could be a musical theatre number and is a tale of jumbled jingoism and opiate delusion. A great bassline and groovy organ beckon in ‘Tell Me What’s On Your Mind’, a heady rush to its melancholy sentiments. Pedal steel distinguishes ‘Never Satisfied’ with its instruction to enjoy the sunrise and watch as the day dies.

The thirteenth track which ends the album and fills Side 4 is the 19-minute ‘Joan in the Garden’, inspired by Joan of Arc’s hallucinations of visitation by angels depicted in Jules Bastien-Lepage’s oversized painting. It starts with funereal bells and church organ before ascending into a full-blown prog epic as Nate Query’s bass takes inspiration from Iron Maiden. The song stops for a cup of tea, undoubtedly dosed with something imagination stirring, in which scrambled samples and synths take over before the bass and synths proclaim their grand plans (“The imperium undone /All the autocrats are laid / To waste”), all brought to a close with cries of “Hosanna

Usually, I champion the concise and struggle once albums pass the forty-minute mark so it feels strange to be proclaiming a double-album as one of the records of 2024. However, there is so much going on ‘As It Ever Was’, that it is impossible for the attention to wander. Now is the time for The Decemberists and in the unlikely event that I ever stop obsessing over this release, there is a healthy back catalogue to discover.

The Decemberists: As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again – Out 14th June 2024 (YABB Records)

Decemberists – Oh No! (Live from Hallowed Halls) – YouTube

I was editor of the long-running fanzine, Plane Truth, and have subsequently written for a number of publications. While the zine was known for championing the most angular independent sounds, performing in recent years with a community samba percussion band helped to broaden my tastes so that in 2021 I am far more likely to be celebrating an eclectic mix of sounds and enthusing about Made Kuti, Anthony Joseph, Little Simz and the Soul Jazz Cuban compilations as well as Pom Poko and Richard Dawson.