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In the six years since the Decemberists’ 2018 LP, I’ll Be Your Girl, the band’s members have been busy—and just not with the Decemberists. 

Keyboardist Jenny Conlee released a solo album of “pieces for accordion and piano.” Guitarist Chris Funk produced records for Stephen Malkmus and Red Fang, among others. Bassist Nate Query got heavily involved with a music program that operates inside Oregon prisons. Drummer John Moen spent more time co-fronting the excellent power-pop band Eyelids. And then there’s founder, frontman, and singer-songwriter Colin Meloy, who’s now a best-selling author—with a feature film in the works. 

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Nearly a quarter-century deep, the Decemberists have become a band they resurrect every few years in between other interests, as opposed to a band they work (and depend) on every day. Which is totally fine! And it also may be why their ninth album, As It Ever Was, So It Will Be Again, feels more like a collage of sounds and styles than a coherent, considered statement. 

Don’t misunderstand: There are several catchy, clever folk-rock tunes here, all showcasing Meloy’s famed vocabulary and seemingly limitless supply of memorable melodies. In fact, if you gently whittled down the 68-minute LP, you’d probably end up with a collection akin to their rootsy 2011 masterpiece, The King Is Dead. “Burial Ground,” “William Fitzwilliam,” “Born To the Morning,” “Tell Me What’s on Your Mind,” “Never Satisfied,” and “Long White Veil” all live in Meloy’s sweet spot: the intersection of strummy acoustic folk, twangy indie rock, and jangling electric guitars. The latter song is a particular highlight, balancing the spirited shimmer of R.E.M. and the breezy ease of Waxahatchee.

The remaining jumble of tunes feel like imports from past eras of the Decemberists. Both the calypso swing of “Oh No!” and the poppy, piano-driven “America Made Me” would fit comfortably on their third album, 2005’s Picaresque. “The Black Maria” and “Don’t Go to the Woods” are exactly the kind of slow, foreboding songs that have dotted their catalog from day one. And closer “Joan in the Garden” is a whole-hearted return to both the epic storytelling of 2006’s The Crane Wife and the heavy prog-rock of 2009’s The Hazards of Love, with a noisy interlude in between. 

At over 19 minutes, “Joan” is adventurous and engrossing, and a much-needed exclamation point on an album that sounds good but lacks direction—unless you count “Guess we’d better make another Decemberists album” as a direction. GRADE: B-

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