Many songwriters are covering the bizarre political climate across the States and Europe, but who uses black humour like The Decemberists? This one is like Roxy Music making a soundtrack to a David Lynch film about a George Orwell novel.

Label: Rough Trade/ Capitol Records
Time: 11 tracks / 43 mins

The Decemberists really upset me. They hooked me in with the alt-folk-pop of The Crane Wife, then made one of my favourite albums ever with the pumped, rollicking prog of The Hazards of Love – but lost all that momentum with their REM tribute The King is Dead, when their personality took a holiday.

But all is forgiven now, since this wonderful return to form.

There is no question that this still sounds like them – it has to with Colin Meloy’s distinctive timbre fronting every song – but they have sought a fresh approach and gone the synth-based route, evoking acts like New Order (especially in "Severed" , sung from the point of view of a murderous, power-crazed dictator) and Roxy Music. It makes sense that the band behind Hazards of Love was influenced by arty prog/pop bands, so this is a natural development.

These songs are often desperately bleak and hopeless, but because they are performed in such a simple, almost nursery rhyme-like way, the humour is even more powerful. It is as if they have given up on everything and are just gritting their teeth with inane grins on their faces.

Take “Everything is Awful,” for example: that title is the bulk of the lyrics, expanded by a few lines like,
     “What’s that crashing sound that follows us around?
       That’s the sound of all things good breaking.”

And along to a glam backing track, “We all Die Young” is another where the title gets repeated a lot, and to add to the surrealism, a children’s choir echoes the line. That such a despairing release comes in the sort of psychedelic design sported on albums from boom times is a further layer of irony.

The deceptive simplicity of so many catchy songs on one album is some achievement: at least six could be singles, and a few of the rest come very close.

The lyrics feature fewer of the peculiarities that used to help define them (like rhyming ‘Sycorax’ with ‘parallax’) but we do get the terrific line, “I know you’ve worked so hard to hoist your own petard.”

When the synths take a break, we get core Decemberists. For example, the very minor key “Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes” reprises their penchant for weird romances and drowning. But even without the glam, they let their roots show (“Sucker’s Prayer” could be a John Lennon album track).

Credit must go to producer John Congleton too. There are so many wonderful details and moments: when those huge drums explode in "Once in my Life", launching the big-sound ‘80s keys into a song that builds and builds; the high-in-the-mix fretless bass resonating through “Cutting Stone;” the Sparks-like falsettoed “la la la la las” and harpsichord in “Your Ghost” (one of several in a row with “la la las”); sweeps of harp in “Rusalka, Rusalka / Wild Rushes,” which has the mix of folk and prog so effective in Hazards of Love. He strips away anything unnecessary to leave such a solid core.

That paring back means that it is a short album by their standards, but if you want a fuller version, there is an exploded release due out in June.

Derek Walker