It’s been two years since the Decemberists released the daunting The Hazards of Love, which was the most inevitable album of their career so far. It was kind of underwhelming to the critics, but the Decemberists fans I know certainly enjoyed it (I did too, but it’s no The Crane Wife). After making such an epic album (or at least an album that strived for epicness, if you count yourselves among those disappointed by The Hazards of Love), it’s understandable that the band would want to work on a bit of a smaller scale for the follow-up.
So now we have The King is Dead, a Decemberists take on Americana/folk/roots music. According to almost everyone, it’s a big left turn for the band, but I don’t see it that way. There have been elements of this stuff in Decemberists tunes as far back as “I Was Meant for the Stage.” The big difference is that, on The King is Dead, the roots element is brought to the foreground, where it shines with dazzling brilliance at times. Sure, some of the tracks can get a little too far on the wrong side of a Crosby, Stills, and Nash homage (thinking of “Down by the Water” here), but for the most part, the album breezes along like a particularly rousing campfire singalong and it has about the same spirit. And, though The King is Dead is “simple” relative to its predecessor, it still bears the measured, smarty-pants approach of any Decemberists album. So no, this is not the Decemberists’ King of America, and not just because it lacks the horrible, whiskey-soaked cover of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” The King is Dead shouldn’t be seen as some kind of cynical attempt to back-pedal from the ambition of The Hazards of Love either – the Decemberists have always been a band that follows their folly diligently and whatever shift of gears this album represents, it feels pretty genuine to me.
I guess the reason that no Decemberists album surprises me (okay, it would surprise me if they did a punk album, but it would also probably suck. Colin Meloy just doesn’t have that kind of stuff in him, at least not that I can see) is that I see them as a roving band of players, wandering the countryside and performing different entertainments for different audiences, very much according to their whim (like the players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). This year, they’re done doing Shakespeare for a while and have decided to maybe dabble in some Steinbeck (I could extend this analogy sideways to the Future of the Left, who mostly do Kurt Vonnegut). The title, The King is Dead, even hints at this in a way – the Decemberists are done singing of magical forests and witch queens and mariners and all that and have put away the enormous set pieces to paint you a picture of the mining life and occasionally provide a rousing dance number (the super catchy “All Arise”) for you to take your sweetheart out on the floor (where the “floor” is the dirt in a barn). Don’t think all that Ren-Fair stuff is gone for good though. This is the Decemberists, after all. Their next record could very well be called Long Live the King!
Musically, The King is Dead is definitely dressed in its country/folk finest – there are clomping drums, fiddles, and, a little too often, there is the harmonica. Perhaps my biggest criticism of this album is what it tells us about the harmonica and that is this: there’s not that much you can really do with one (I know someone is gonna name-check Blues Traveler’s John Popper, but how many Blues Traveler albums do you really listen to from start to finish? I’m guessing the answer is between zero and half of one. It doesn’t take long for Popper’s sugar-high noodling to wear thin and at this point, I’m betting that band basically has to make up reasons to have a harmonica in every song) and putting one in your country/folksy songs now, in the 21st century, is the worst kind of trope, one that does little more than signify that you listened to and acknowledge the importance of early Bob Dylan albums. It seems like everyone is playing the same four or five riffs on the harmonica these days and I say enough is enough. Concertinas and melodicas are still acceptable. For now.
Though it beats pretty much every other Decemberists record in the brevity department, The King is Dead still bears all the hallmarks of Colin Meloy’s songwriting. Words like “loam,” “plinth,” “anon,” “bonhomie” and “dowager” abound, showing that Meloy knows exactly what to do with a B.A. in English. Meloy’s lyrics can be alienating on any Decemberists album (it’s a valid criticism of this band that they can be a little too clever for their own good), but they lend an air of authenticity to The King is Dead. These are country/folk/roots songs written by and for the Decemberists, so it would almost be disingenuous of Meloy to entirely let go of his book-nerdy verbosity. The nod to David Foster Wallace in “Calamity Song” (which also features Peter Buck playing a riff that reminds me of at least three early R.E.M. tunes, mostly “Talk About the Passion”) gives you a little glimpse of the clever, literate Decemberists hiding behind this mask of rootsy simplicity. It’s a lovely touch to my ears, but if you already hate the Decemberists (and/or R.E.M. and/or Infinite Jest – I love all three), it’s not gonna endear them to you.
Probably because the Decemberists are from Portland, The King is Dead puts me in mind of two other great Portland records from the last two years: The Minus 5’s country-tinged Killingsworth (which featured the Decemberists on a few tracks) from 2008 and last year’s completely underrated July Flame by Laura Veirs. July Flame, like The King is Dead, was produced by Tucker Martine. Oddly enough, July Flame strikes me as a perfect Portland winter album and The King is Dead seems like it would be great for a lazy summer evening. I’m not sure where Killingsworth fits into the equation exactly, other than being a third great country/folk record; I have a thing for triumvirates I guess. Or perhaps it was working with the Minus 5 on Killingsworth that was the catalyst for the Decemberists’ retreat to a farm in Oregon to record an album of simple, gorgeous songs. Either way, The King is Dead is fucking great and I hope it’s the first tiny pebble in an avalanche of awesome music for 2011.