For the better part of this decade, The Decemberists have been ‘Schrödinger's indie band’: signed to a major label (Capitol) and having a number one charting album (2011’s The King is Dead), but never having a crossover hit along the lines of ‘Float On’ or ‘Kids’ to really catch fire in mainstream circles (if only for a couple years). At this point, they’re an institution, further emphasized by appearing on network sitcoms like The Simpsons and Parks and Recreation as a de facto “cool indie band.” Despite their bookish/cutesy tendencies falling out of vogue in recent years, Colin Meloy’s band has carried on. Too weird for the normies and too normie for the weirdos didn’t lead to their collapse. It may help that they’ve been spacing out recent releases several years at a time, making the idea of diving back into their historical fiction ballads and banjos and accordions more appealing than it would if we felt completely inundated by new releases.

Four years off didn’t help keep their last album, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World from being their worst yet. After The King Is Dead felt like a calming and poignant antidote to the ambitious-to-a-fault prog opera The Hazards of Love, World felt a charmless mess, so desultory, you wanted to rescind the second half of the title from it.

It wasn’t until I heard ‘Severed,’ the lead single of new album, I’ll Be Your Girl that I felt genuinely excited about a Decemberists album for the first time in seven years. The iciness of the synths and deliberately unfeeling drums is outdone only by Meloy’s hostile words and tone: “I alone will make wrongs right/But in order to root out the cancer, it’s got to be cut from the side.” Deviousness from him as a narrator is nothing new, but ‘Severed’ has Xiu Xiu-esque viscerality that I never would’ve imagined he’d be able to pull off. Bringing out the synths can often seem like a desperate bid for a long in the tooth band to maintain relevance, but if the rest of the album was going to be as gripping as ‘Severed,’ I was stoked about any other left-field (for them) approaches they had.

Instead, ‘Severed’ ends up being something of a red herring, not just for how I’ll Be Your Girl sounds but also it’s overall quality. Synths are present, but they feel more like an afterthought that an actual enhancement for much of these tracks. Much of the album could at least be called ‘adequate,’ giving it an immediate leg-up on its predecessor. But much of it is dispiritingly mediocre, sounding not only like songs Meloy could write in his sleep, but ones that anyone with even a passing knowledge with The Decemberists could come up with.

Familiarity alone doesn’t ruin an album. Opener ‘Once In My Life’ is textbook Decemberists from the start, with its wistful acoustic guitar strumming, but when the synths come through, it feels truly triumphant. Meloy’s lyrics might seem trite, but there’s strength in his earnestness, as well as the backing vocals of Jenny Conlee. The futuristic synth passages are about the only thing keeping ‘Cutting Stone’ from being a total bore. ‘Sucker’s Prayer’ briefly brings in proggy guitar to poor results and sounds generally half-finished. There’s an aimlessness about the album (which even has a song called ‘Tripping Along’). It feels more like a B-sides collection than a formed work. Like most rarities comps, it has a handful of gems/near-gems, but much of it elicits a shrug.

If there’s a loose theme to be gathered, it’s how The Decemberists are handling Trump’s America. In addition to the vitriol of ‘Severed,’ ‘Everything Is Awful’ is as on-the-nose as you can get, from the title to the lyrics, but it’s chipper guitar and fluttering background vocals make it sound like it truly comes from the heart. They may have gone lightly on the politics for fear of beating a dead horse, but I would take five more tracks along those lines than the insipid, possible-Bowie tribute, ‘Starwatcher’ and the cloying ‘We All Die Young.’ Meloy needs to listen to Knock Knock a few times to learn how to use a children’s choir effectively.

Lyrically, I’ll Be Your Girl is disappointingly neutered, with words seeming to exist only to support the music, rather than them having an equal support of one another. The best Decemberists album (i.e., the first four) succeeded in large part to Meloy’s talents as a raconteur. He could summon characters and places in a way that felt transportive. Not every song needs to be a short story, but a bland serenade like the closing title track (with lyrics like ‘Like a lily alive in full bloom, I’ll be your girl,’) is a waste when you know he’s capable of so much more. He seems aware of this, offering the eight-minute long ‘Rusalka, Rusalka/The Wild Rushes’ as a penultimate bid at haunting drama. The slow piano and mournful tone from Meloy works initially, but the song loses its way in the second half, around when the banjo comes in.

On I’ll Be Your Girl, The Decemberists do a few things well, a few things poorly, and most of them acceptably and nothing more. The fact that it never goes completely off the rails is almost as disappointing as the fact that it never finds its footing or seems interested in doing so. They arguably fostered both a fandom and derision through their quirks, but this album seems like a compromise. There’s not much to hate about it but not much to love either.