I am something of a Decemberists apologist. I have yet to waver in my dedicated affection for their over-the-top theatrical pop music even going as far as to place their maligned The Hazards of Love on this very list (I still stand by that, by the by). If there's one Decemberists record I have never felt the need to defend, however it's Picaresque. Sure, it's still a bit pretentious, but that's par for the course and also part of the joy. The Decemberists aren't the least bit self conscious as it relates to their pretentions and it gives their music a certain confidence that I've always found refreshing.
Colin Meloy has always had a flair for the dramatics and they're certainly evident here. These songs are almost all ambitious narratives and yet they're not connected so they don't get bogged down in the details the way they may have on The Crane Wife and yes, even my beloved The Hazards of Love. The important thing, though is the songs and Picaresque is the Decemberists greatest batch of songs ever.
Opener "The Infanta" is one of the great moments in the bands history - a train chugging type of song that builds to a fevered climax. It's my favorite first song on a record since The Geraldine Fibbers' opened Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home with the stunning "Lilybelle." The there's "Eli the Barrow" boy - another of Meloy's gorgeously sad and desperate love songs. "The Sporting Life", "Sixteen Military Wives" and the epic "The Mariner's Revenge Song" are all essential.
Then there are, for me, the two peerless Decemberists tracks - "On the Bus Mall" and "Of Angels and Angles". Lyrically, Meloy has never written a better song than "Bus Mall" which follows a group of young boys who make a living as prostitutes. It's a sad song, but a beautiful one and proved Meloy was more than just a spinner of whimsical yarns about rogues and pirates. He understands the sadness inherent in these boys' lives and is able to convey it in one of his best vocals as well. Then there's "Angels" a track that I think only I hold as dear as I do. I can remember replaying this song over and over again when I first got the record. I think it was how delicate it was that got me - it felt like any second it would break yet it never did. I still get that same feeling listening to it now. It's remarkable as is Picaresque.