The Decemberists' lofty, literate indie-pop is squarely bisected by the thin tightrope that connected The Smiths in the '80s to Belle And Sebastian in the '90s–one that's left dozens of lesser bands battered, bruised, and ultimately discarded. The secret to success in this particular field is reverence for (rather than slavish devotion to) stylistic forebears: Where Decemberists singer-songwriter Colin Meloy diverges is just as important as where he pays homage. Just as impressive, though not as immediate as its predecessor Castaways And Cutouts, the new Her Majesty The Decemberists is packed tight with literary and historical references; even the band's name is a nod to 19th-century Russian revolutionaries. Like Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum, to whom he's frequently compared, Meloy crafts miniature-scale epics, though his vessel never careens as far into choppy waters as Mangum's did. Instead, Meloy tells stately tales about the camaraderie of WWI battles, the sickeningly seductive opulence of Los Angeles, and a clipper ship bound for Australia, all while dropping $50 phrases ("O, what a rush of ripe élan!") over ornate pop. This all may sound ostentatious or showy, but it isn't: Her Majesty aims high and hits a difficult mark, delivering glorious, sometimes fantastic tales without ever getting boorish. Like Morrissey, Meloy seems anxious to share his strange obsessions, not lord them over his audience: The jaunty "Billy Liar" even pays tribute to the book (and subsequent film) that inspired The Smiths' similarly upbeat "Frankly Mr. Shankly." The Portland band only veers off course when it gets too cheeky and British, particularly on the Mary Poppins-esque "The Chimbley Sweep." But those moments are more than offset by the strange sincerity of the young-novelist homage "Song For Myla Goldberg" and the spare beauty of "Red Right Ankle," both of which stand out on a pleasantly puzzling, undeniably smart, and frequently brilliant album.
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