The Decemberists: “The King is Dead”

Here’s a band that I always love, even when I don’t necessarily enjoy each and every album that they make. When last we heard from Portland’s own brainy, folksy rock troupe, it was on a sprawling and complicated rock opera, done up in full-on prog-rock bombast, called Hazards of Love. Me, I didn’t find it to be quite to my taste, but I nevertheless adored them for making it. They were pushing themselves, making music both deliberately and fearlessly, playing with their own internal formula by pumping up one facet of their music (their theatrical side) and dialing down the others, bulldozing whatever boundaries they saw around them.

A couple years later, the new story is that maybe boundaries can be a good thing. The King is Dead isn’t a repudiation of Hazards so much as a conscious effort to flip the equation, to let up on the theatricality and the pomp and instead lean on their more intimate, folksy charms. This is intentional record-making– not a whim, but a concentrated effort to maintain balance in their catalog and ensure that all of their gifts are being put to use. Think of this album, I reckon, as a quick but well-crafted short story collection, following on the heels of their Great American Novel. (Or would that be Great American Opera?)

I still love this band, as much for making this album as for making the last one– making an album as ambitious as Hazards took guts, but so does following it with something so much more miniature in scale. And as a matter of personal taste, I have to say that this is the kind of Decemberists album I prefer. It’s everything the last album wasn’t– lean, efficient, direct– and no less impressive because of it. Indeed, as any short story reader will tell you, brevity doesn’t suggest a lack of complexity, and these songs, more tightly-constructed but also open-ended, are as riddlesome and as flecked with mystery as anything on Hazards.

It’s also a shift in the band’s stylistic palette– again, a wonderful yin to Hazards‘ yang, as the two albums together might form a pretty well-balanced portrait of The Decemberists while, taken as two separate units, they show a band confident enough to follow their creative instincts down side roads and back alleys without ever losing sight of their starting point. The last album was their prog record, and this one is their country and folk album– country and folk as interpreted through jangly college rock, R.E.M. in particular, and not just because Peter Buck guests on over half the songs, but because Colin Meloy can write a song like “Down by the Water” which cops shamelessly from “The One I Love” but still somehow sounds more like a Decemberists cut than an R.E.M. B-side. Even the album title is sort of a college-rock reference, or at least a Smiths reference, though, ironically, this, more than any other Decemberists album, is devoid of anything that sounds like it could have come from Morrisey‘s pen. But I still like the title: It suggests to me that this is a sort of non-specific tribute album, not to a particular artist but to a form, and not comprised of cover songs but of artful homages.

Fair enough, then. There are also some country touchstones here, particularly country as it was played by the Byrds, perhaps a bit of Gram Parsons or Tumbleweed-era Elton John, as well. The twangy stuff rears its head most brazenly on “All Arise,” as delightful a song as this band has ever recorded, a sort of country hoedown with fiddle and jaunty saloon piano. Elsewhere, the band creates a wonderful little circle of influences: They play country and folk music like a band that learned it from R.E.M., who in turn learned it from the Byrds, and it’s neither difficult nor unseemly to hear Meloy and his band creating a space for themselves on the continuum. They turn to their forefathers here, and emerge looking like a band that’s earned the right to be mentioned alongside them.

But it isn’t just the thrust of their musical influences that has changed, but the entire way of crafting songs: Hazards of Love found strength and complexity in the way its songs joined into a dramatic and thematic framework, where here, the songs are forced to stand on their own feet. They are crafted as self-contained entities, with elegance and economy; I actually do think that Meloy regarded the writing of these songs as something along the lines of short story writing, as they are written with lots of open space and loose ends, as though they are meant to be sketches– or better yet, puzzles. But that isn’t to say that they feel incomplete, or that the band doesn’t cover as much ground here: What impresses is the precision with which they play out, how nearly every song proves to be enthralling in its own right.

I love, for example, the way Meloy hijacks the melody of an old Irish folk song for “Rox in the Box,” in its own way a reminder of this band’s love of folklore and storytelling as anything on the last album. Some of Meloy’s most affecting ballads are present here– a couple of pleasantly intimate folk tunes, “June Hymn” and “January Hymn,” the similar titles suggesting that Meloy hasn’t completely gotten the prog-/opera bug out of his system– and the closing number, “Dear Avery,” takes it place alongside the great Decemberists war songs, though this one is perhaps the most gentle yet: The emphasis isn’t on politics or even the act of war itself, but rather on the loss of a child, on feelings of empathy and compassion. As a closing song, it makes for a nice book-end with the opener “Don’t Carry it All,” which rattled along on a rhythm aped from Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” but sounds very much like a country/folk song, and features lyrics about carrying one anothers’ burdens. These are good touchstones for the album, good signifiers of everything that lies between them, for this album isn’t about pushing the listener or challenging us to keep up with the band’s ambitions but rather it’s about being welcoming, warm, inviting– the kind of album that pulls you close, and, as such, an album that’s easier to fall in love with than Hazards, unless you just really love rock operas and proggy stuff.

I haven’t even mentioned yet that Gillian Welch joins the band to sing harmonies on most of these songs, something that is not only a good indicator of this album’s authenticity– Welch has a pretty good track record for appearing on albums that constitute the Real Deal– but of its noble intentions: With harmonies this rich, it’s impossible to hear the record as anything other than an invitation to sing along. It’s made with a lot of love, this one, not only for the music itself but for the listener, who is encouraged not just to hear these songs but to share them, to engage them with the band. That’s not a small achievement– at least as impressive as, say, a prog-rock opera– and it inclines me to say that The King is Dead, rustic and homely though it may seem at first, is as warm-blooded, and perhaps as lasting, as anything this band has done.

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