Album Review: The Decemberists - The King is Dead

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The Decemberists - The King is Dead
The Decemberists - The King is Dead (Courtesy of Capitol Records)

The cover for the Decemberists' new record, The King Is Dead, shows a forest glen bathed in an inviting amber glow, as if to depict a radiating lightness after the comparatively dark (and thorny) Hazards of Love. After several albums of increasingly complex compositions, intricate instrumentation, and byzantine plots, the band has made a clear effort to dial things back to make a tight, concise compilation of songs that will appeal to both the rock crowd and the folk element. It's a fresh-sounding, captivating record that goes down as smoothly as a refreshing glass of beer (which, not coincidentally, also mirrors the color of the sky on the cover).

It's interesting to view this album in the wake of The Hazards of Love -- arguably the most elaborate rock opera since Tommy -- which garnered mixed reviews. Some admired the craft and commitment, while others felt it marked the precise moment the Decemberists stepped over the line and into the realm of self-parody. It's easy to envision The King Is Dead's relative brevity as a reaction to Hazards, then again, it may just be the sound of a band willing to shake things up and take it in a different direction. Frontman Colin Meloy has described these songs as being more like a collection of short stories, rather than the long, interconnected plots of the past (at least I think he said this; I believe it was in an interview I haven't been able to find since, otherwise I would have properly cited it). Without the burden of a plot, it becomes easier to simply enjoy each song on its own merits.

If anything, I feel like the band may have pulled back on the reins a little too much. With an title that directly mirrors the Smiths' The Queen Is Dead, I'd actually expect something overly ambitious, in an attempt to play off the classics of the past. One of the most impressive -- and frustrating -- songs for me is "This Is Why We Fight", which takes its name from a series of U.S. World War II propaganda films, and shares its name with a running feature on Pitchfork Media about the state of indie music. The song could have been a sweeping manifesto about the role of popular music in the 21st century, but it gets bogged down in vague phrases and many subsequent repetitions of the title. The "This" is never explained, and it feels like a missed opportunity.

While all the songs are pleasant, I find myself wishing for a little more depth in the lyric department. This has always been an issue with me and the Decemberists: Meloy writes some very thick songs that range from the fantastic -- to the historical -- to the mythological, and it's difficult to determine whether they stand on their own or actually signify an even greater metaphor. I spent months trying to figure out what The Hazards of Love was a metaphor for, and found myself disappointed that the story was largely based on classic English folk tales of a shapeshifting princes. Then again, I was approaching it from an English major's perspective, and in all reality, it's more appropriate to enjoy each song for the little story it is.

I've gotten my criticisms out of the way now, and can get back to properly focusing on the strengths of the album, which are many. The band takes on a looser, more expansive sound that shakes off Hazards' clinical choreography. I enjoyed being surprised by which instruments would make sudden appearances in which songs -- fiddles, harmonicas, accordions, booming drums, and majestic guitar lines. R.E.M.'s Peter Buck guests on three songs; without his participation, the band probably would have been lambasted for cannibalizing the past, but with him, it feels like a passing of the baton to take up the Old Weird America mantle of alternative music. "Calamity Song" is as effective batting from the #2 spot as "These Days" was on Lifes Rich Pageant 25 years ago: a relentlessly hard-driving rocker with apocalyptic overtones. "Down by the Water" bears great similarities to "The One I Love", but in place of the latter's cathartic payoff ("FYYYY-ERRRRR-ERRRRR!"), Meloy wearily laments "the season rubs me wrong," implying a general malaise that might linger between seasons. Accordingly, we get a pair of "Hymnss, one for January and one for June.

As I was finishing this review, I checked the review that Greg Kot (of Sound Opinions) had written for his website. Like me, he alluded to the band "reining in" its sound, prominently utilized the adjective "concise," made the same two R.E.M. comparisons, and even name-dropped the same instruments. I take this as a sign that The King Is Dead will touch most people in the same ways: as a breezy, enjoyable album that cuts down on the details and focuses on the pleasurable aspects of music and life. This is a solid way to ring in 2011.