Just four years ago, America was singing Tegan and Sara’s pop anthem “Everything is Awesome.” Sure, the audience was in on the singers’ joke. In its satirical context — The LEGO Movie —  the song was thick with irony: It highlighted the protagonist’s blissful ignorance about his culture of conformity. And we sang along with our tongues planted firmly in our cheeks (which is easier than it sounds).

And yet, there was no denying that the song’s unbridled enthusiasm and power-pop punch was ultimately spirit-lifting. Many of us actually liked the song for how the positivity of its music flew in the face of so much aural ugliness. Kids loved it, and parents felt like kids when they joined the chorus — at least until the song wore out its welcome. And the movie, for all of its sophisticated satire, was worth revisiting for, above all, its flamboyant celebration of creativity. A massive corporate blockbuster, hyper-marketed for maximum dollars, The LEGO Movie became one of the year’s most vital works of anti-establishment art. You know… for kids!

It appears that the Decemberists, whether they know it or not, were influenced by this.

Colin Meloy and his band of kindred storytellers have made an impressive career out of dark, depressing concept albums about doomed lovers, doomed sailors… anybody doomed, really. Good luck classifying their sound: They’ve famously fused folk, alt rock, prog rock, stage musicals, country, and more. And it makes sense that they would throw a saddle on 2018, this ticking time-bomb of a year, and ride it Slim Pickens-style down toward a seemingly inevitable American apocalypse with a song called… I am not making this up… “Everything is Awful.”

And, God bless them, they’ve kindled some of the same contagious energy that made me sing that LEGO Movie song a few too many times. For all of its straightforward declarations of trouble, the song kindles a rock-and-roll joy that acts as an antidote to the song’s central claim. I haven’t had this much fun singing about cultural decline since R.E.M. sang “Stand” or “Shiny Happy People.”

In fact, the whole record — I’ll Be Your Girl — has this effect on me.

Perhaps it’ll play like nostalgia for you. These sounds do see piped from some deep reservoir of late ’80s and early ’90s synth-pop. Besides R.E.M., I’m hearing early They Might Be Giants and other Sgt. Pepper-y parties like, well, World Party.

That’s due to a reinvention of the band’s typically acoustic sound by avant-garde-pop producer John Congleton (St. Vincent). He’s a surprising choice for the band, and a brilliant one. For the first 1 minute and 30 seconds of the opening track, you’ll think this sounds like just another Decemberists record, but then — boom! Ladies and gentlemen, the 2018 Decemberists, who have more in common with Simple Minds than Fairport Convention.

And by the time we reach “Everything is Awful” (Track 7), these guys sound as self-assured and forceful as ever.

Perhaps you’ll hear “Everything is Awful” as a bold rejection of its own claim. Perhaps it’ll sound like hope.

Or, perhaps it’ll sound like an inspiring call to fight the authoritarian abuse being relentlessly unleashed by the Satanic Powers That Be, to resist with everything that drives such tyrants crazy: imagination, independence, and joy in the midst of seeming powerlessness and poverty.

I admit that, I lost interest in the Decemberists over the last ten years of underwhelming releases like The King is Dead and What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. Both records sounded to me like a band trying to find a satisfying new place in alt-country. I was fleetingly attached to a few catchy tracks, but nothing took hold like the high standards they’d set with visionary works of literary significance like The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love.

That changed last year, on the occasion of their collaboration with U.K. singer/songwriter Olivia Chaney. Meloy and Company decided that the newfound chemistry demanded a new band name — Offa Rex — the results (an album called The Queen of Hearts) were transcendent. It appeared even more evident that the Decemberists work better the farther back they cast their nets for inspiration. And they’re at their best when they have an encompassing vision that brings the songs into dialogue with one another, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

I don’t think I’ll Be Your Girl measures up to the band’s most epic achievements. It’s as straightforward a pop record as anything they’ve done. But it does offer a vibrant new manifestation of the band’s giddy doomsaying that makes me want to play it several times a day.

And it just might be unfair to ask them to immerse themselves in another troubled world when their own is so immediately jeopardized. Why bother with world-building on some ancient tale of disaster when you’re sailing on a ship that is rapidly sinking? Here, even the songs that sound like old stories sound ripped from the headlines.

The opener, “Once in My Life,” is about as simple as pop songs get, but who hasn’t needed to sing these words once in a while?

Oh, for once in my
Oh, for once in my life
Could just something go
Could just something go right?

“I imagine you’ve felt this way,” said Colin Meloy, introducing the song on Instagram, “or are maybe feeling this way right now.”

I admit, while I have hope in my heart of hearts, I do feel the urge to shout this refrain several times a day, particularly when I read the news. And that’s okay. Isn’t this sentiment at the heart of many Psalms? (How about a b-side cover of Morrissey’s “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”?)

“Cutting Stone” tells the tragic story of someone bearing a sharp-edged instrument that is intended for liberation but ends up doing more harm than good:

There upon a mountaintop
I looked down on to what I’d wrought
And when I saw my labors through
I cut my cutting stone in two…

Hearing this, I can’t help but think about America’s freedom-fighting self-image, its glorification of a hero with a gun. But you don’t need me to say more than that.

Nor do you need me to point out the obvious resemblance of the singer of “Severed” to a certain narcissitic Antichrist:

I alone am the answer
I alone will make wrongs right

I was born to a jackal
I was born in a whiteout
Gonna smother you all till I choke you
Gonna smother you all till you kick out

And “Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes” might just be another contribution to the band’s vast library of lengthy, literary fatalistic stories about cursed travelers and mythological creatures, but it’s hard to ignore that this siren hails from vaguely Russian origins.

There are some familiar Decemberists anthems of suicidal despair — consider “Sucker’s Prayer” and “We All Die Young” (which celebrates the Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, who turned is back on Christianity after seeing the horrors of war). My younger self, having been taught to ignore “negative” music, would have cringed and turned away, assuming that such stuff could brainwash me toward self-destruction. But I’m inclined to argue now that such bitter sentiments can, when set to music, help us release such dark ideas rather than holding onto them. And songs like “Starwatcher” counter these dark mirrors of this present darkness with appeals for dreamers to rise up and “kick out.”

(I’ll never forget the startling discovery that a live show by the Cure, for all of their melancholic anthems of depression, can bring fans together for a communion of joyful catharsis.)

I run the risk, in describing the album this way, of scaring off listeners. Who wants to listen to lyrics about tyranny, oppression, and the flagrant evils of the rich when we’re pummeled by news of the same with every morning’s headlines?

But I’m finding in these songs an opportunity to sing out loud and release some of the bottled up anguish, some of the exasperation, some of those surging spirits of protest that rise up when I see the morning’s headlines. I don’t embrace this album because I embrace the hopelessness in its sentiments, but because I find Psalm 55 in my Holy Scriptures — a psalm of rage and despair in which there is never a turn toward affirmations of hope.

We need songs to give shape to these very human feelings of dismay. Whatever faith I may still have that all things will work together for good for those who choose love, who choose live, and who choose the God of unconditional grace and goodness, I’m still singing that old U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and those even older laments from the Scriptures that endorse our expressions of impatience and longing.

I believe that evil will be overcome. I believe that love wins. But I’m living here, now, surrounded by suffering and seeing clear evidence that far greater suffering is on the way. And as I read these “Everything is Awful” headlines, I want to sing with the Decemberists: Oh, for once in my life… couldn’t something go right?

So don’t be surprised if your kids start singing “Everything is Awful.” Don’t be alarmed, either. It’s probably good for them.

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Other Reviews Worth Noting:

Animator and author Ken Priebe, himself a Looking Closer Specialist, says,

I still can’t put my finger on why The Decemberists has become my favorite band, and Colin Meloy (with his wife Carson Ellis) my favorite artists. When they’re not making music, they are writing children’s books, fighting for good causes or designing board games. Simply put, they are always full of surprises, and maybe that’s part of it. As someone who loves the synth-soaked sounds of 80s new wave like The Cure and the Thompson Twins, movie soundtracks like Labyrinth and Ladyhawke, to modern sounds like the Stranger Things soundtrack and Scottish pop darlings CHVRCHES….to hear this soaring sonic synth combined with Meloy’s usual crooning fills me with enough joy to burst open at the sound of this new record. In particular, “Rusalka, Rusalka/The Wild Rushes” has become my new favorite track, right up there with the beautiful storytelling inherent in The Crane Wife and the best moments from The Hazards of Love. It makes me want to tell stories of my own, full of paradoxical doses of darkness, joy and delight, peppered with an epic mythos and grandiloquent verbiage.

David Edwards (Drowned in Sound) had been missing their signature characteristics — “the absurdities, the sprawling, magnificent fairy-stories, the cerebral whirrings and clicks” that had “thrilled, enraptured and echoed joyously over the years.” That magic, he says, is back. He calls I’ll Be Your Girl “a fundamental exhalation of relief, release and sheer entertainment. … What is different here is the enthusiasm and the energy behind the project – the band sound engaged and excited again.”

A panel of critics at The A.V. Club aren’t so impressed: “I’ll Be Your Girl is a welcome sign of a veteran band eager to experiment, but it’s also the first Decemberists album where the sounds are more interesting than the songs.”

But one of my favorite critics, Steven Thomas Erlewine at AllMusic says that this is the album

where the band decide to ditch the past and engage with the modern world, layering their folk-rock with synthesizers and other contemporary accouterments. The intentional irony is, that this modern sound … is predicated on the New Wave of the ’70s and ’80s, a sound that would seem like a throwback for nearly any other group, but in the hands of the Decemberists, such swaths of synths provide a vibrant, colorful jolt. …. While Meloy’s lyrics are sharply honed and evocative, it’s this cavalcade of sounds that not only makes I’ll Be Your Girl compelling, but distinctive among Decemberists albums.