The Decemberists: As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again Album Review

That’s how they start the album, and every song that follows—from the “Hell”-acious “Oh No!” to the bittersweet love song “All I Want Is You”—ponders the inevitable end of every story. The long white veil in “Long White Veil” hides not a bride’s face but a corpse’s frozen countenance (gesturing toward the Lefty Frizzell hit “The Long Black Veil”), and “Don’t Go to the Woods” is nothing but dread and caution: a preamble to “The Black Maria,” the dark heart of this album. That title might refer to arcane slang for a paddy wagon, or it might be the Beasts Pirates in One Piece, but Meloy is writing his own canon here. Death is a walking shadow, never glimpsed by the living but known by its heavy footfalls in the hallway. “Turn out your lantern light, set your affairs to right,” Meloy sings over a strummed acoustic guitar and a lone funereal horn. “The Black Maria comes for us all.”

As fanciful as these songs can be, the Decemberists can’t help but ground them in the very real, very horrifying present. That’s never been their strongest subject, but they at least try to meet our current moment with the capitalist allegory of “The Reapers” and even “William Fitzwilliam” (which is haunted by the ghost of John Prine’s “Paradise”). The angriest song here, “America Made Me,” might be twice as powerful if it was half as clever, but there is something to be said for soundtracking dissent with jaunty piano and party horns. It’s a tack they’ve been deploying since “16 Military Wives,” although here the sentiment is more potent in its outrage and disgust.

As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again ends as you might expect: with a nearly 20-minute epic called “Joan in the Garden.” Its winding length and multi-part structure gesture toward The Tain and its spawn The Hazards of Love, but it might align more closely with “I Was Meant for the Stage,” their creative exegesis from Her Majesty. It’s a song about what the Decemberists do and why they do it, a meditation on art as a weapon against death—but, in this case, not their own. Joan is literally in the garden, deep in the soil, but Meloy can resurrect her with words: “Make her 10 miles tall, make her arms cleave mountains… write a line, erase a line.” After a five-minute folk passage and a five-minute prog section, the Decemberists give over nearly 10 minutes more to ambient noises, stray rhythms, plunked strings, errant synths. It sounds like they’re striking the set and clearing the stage—a softer kind of death—and it’s weirdly moving. They might have stopped there rather than append a dramatic coda, but they never could resist a big finish. As it ever was.

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The Decemberists: As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again

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