With The Decemberists having recently announced plans for a prolonged hiatus – to allow more time for literary ventures, musical side-projects, domestic obligations and medicinal recuperation – it’s somewhat inevitable that this new live compendium will be considered as some form of career showcasing milestone. This is no bad thing considering the lengths and breadths that Colin Meloy and compadres have taken us over the last decade, which is indeed worth some well-considered retrospective reflection. Moreover, for a band with such a formidable live reputation, an on stage document is also a service to fans that have both experienced and missed the band in the flesh.
Across two CDs (or three slabs of vinyl), We All Raise Our Voices To The Air radiantly-record performances from a string of 2011 American shows, which lean heavily on last year’s The King Is Dead LP as well as 2005’s Picaresque and 2006’s The Crane Wife. Collectively, the 20 gathered songs represent the most melodic, the most ambitious and the most indulgent elements of The Decemberists’s oeuvre to date.
The first half of the collection is certainly the most consistently enjoyable, with its strong mix of concise songs and storytelling epics. The opening take on “The Infanta” (bolstered by a hired-in brass section) is undoubtedly a rambunctiously joyful example of The Decemberists at full carnivalesque throttle. Widescreen renditions of the sprawling “We Both Go Down Together” and the grand espionage-meets-love affair fiction of “The Bagman’s Gambit” are equally elevating illustrations of Meloy’s knowing verbosity and knack for theatrical framing. A trio of early-R.E.M. homages from The King Is Dead – “Down By The Water,” “Rise To Me” and “Calamity Song” – chime and strum along more verve and muscularity than their studio incarnations. The sole cut plucked from 2009’s overblown Hazards Of Love, the boisterous novella that is the “The Rake’s Song,” is given a beefier and nastier edge, that verges on resembling a Grinderman remix of The Violent Femmes. Vivacious versions of lesser-known early-years nuggets (“Leslie Ann Levine” from 2002’s Castaways And Cutouts and “The Soldiering Life” from 2003’s Her Majesty The Decemberists) will delight long-time loyalists, as will a 16 minute heartfelt medley of “The Crane Wife 1, 2 & 3.”
The second disc is undoubtedly more for the hard-core fan, given its looser performances, more meandering set-list selections and somewhat exhausting crowd interactions. Hence, onetime singles “Billy Liar” and “O Valencia!” stretch into elongated audience-participation marathons that were probably more fun if you’d been there. An even heavier dollop of songs from The King Is Dead reveals that said album’s narrower-focus was a good break on the band sliding into a pompous folk-prog cul-de-sac, even if the extracts on the latter portion of this live round-up don’t have quite as many hooks as on the former. Elsewhere, things tend to plod a bit with the lethargically lacklustre “Grace Cathedral Hill,” the lyrically-clunky “Oceanside” and the bloated 10 minute makeover of “I Was Meant For The Stage.” But as with disc one’s lengthy extrapolation of “The Bagman’s Gambit,” another gargantuan recitation of a tall tale from Picaresque – namely the Beirut-like dramedy of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” – makes The Decemberists’ culture of artistic excess forgivable.
We All Raise Our Voices To The Air would surely have been a more digestible gathering with the addition of a few more ‘hits’ – such as “16 Military Wives” and “The Perfect Crime #2” – whilst exorcising some of its more portentous passages. Yet ultimately such moves would have compromised The Decemberists’ mission to work from a major label platform (in the US at least) without giving into predictable conventions, which is always worthy of some credit and respect. Overall then, this is an unwieldy yet infectious compendium that will satisfy those who need it most.