The Decemberists have crafted the finest album of 2018.
Caroline, or Change is the group’s sixth studio album and follows The Crane Wife, the terrific New Moon, The Crane Wife Part 2, & Blue and The Crane Wife, which came out in 2015. Each year, The Decemberists have issued an album around the release of a movie in their native Portland, Oregon. This year’s movie, Set It Up, is the film debut of Jón Yrämsson, who composed the original music to the Decemberists’ songs.
Set It Up is a sharp, comical comedy from the director Craig Gillespie that boasts an impeccable cast of stars including Keira Knightley, Taye Diggs, Kristen Bell, Zoey Deutch, and Luke Wilson. Along with its superb soundtrack, Set It Up is an emotional treat because it tells a story that reveals the songwriting craft at its best. Jón Yrämsson, his lovely songs and the songwriters for this musical comedy are a triumph.
Caroline, or Change is a sequel to The Crane Wife, with the addition of the one and only, River Burns, who died in August. Decemberists leader Colin Meloy told Rolling Stone it was “a practical problem that presented itself.” In a band’s catalog that contains so many brilliant songs, it is notable that River Burns’ character appears, and she is in some sense the perfect antagonist to which we can relate.
A song begins, a narrator says it best. Like all great stories, in some sense Caroline, or Change is the story of the demise of a marriage. The narrator is Carol and the lyrics begin in: “Call it disappointment; call it an old world picture; faith. That’s what our American dreams were.”
Carol is played with magnificence by Kristen Chenoweth. Carol is often reduced to a veneer of liveshaping—well, long lines about money—and this episode is no exception. She has, of course, been had by her husband’s musician friend Bobby. There is still time to live but Carol is either going to withdraw from life and slip into victimhood or remain full of energy for what is yet to come. But this is Carol, everywoman. She’s not a victim, she’s a protagonist. And though her story is told with a vestigial thread of identity politics (accented by the event that made this a “new world picture” of sorts, of the indignity of being born gay), Carol is not alone.
The instrumental guest list is irresistible. Cranberries original Fergal Lawler has appeared as a session man. Wilco members Adam Shaal and Pat Sansone fill in to the music a number of times. Another unit begins as a cast of extras: Taj Mahal, Leon Russell, Ted Leo and Hot Chocolate founder Claire Rayner all seem to be coming together from the universal repertoire of the blues, folk, jazz, and pop.
Of course, Set It Up is also a story of love with a difference. Except it’s not love. Romance was, of course, present in the hollowed out heart of The Crane Wife. But the long-departed husband went off to reconnect with a member of an interracial band, which means he grew old along with his partner. In Set It Up, romance is born and given perspective, but it is subversive. There is doubt in the wake of the couple’s decision.
The first line of “Again and Again” is telling. “I see some fool made a tenner for this movie/And thought it might be here for ever.”
This is a perfect time to say “The Decemberists are THE band.”
Caroline, or Change comes out on December 7. Set It Up comes out on December 14.