It needs to be stated first, before you read any further, that I am an unapologetic lover of The Decemberists. More specifically, Colin Meloy can do pretty much no wrong in my book. So, if you disagree with my thoughts on this particular album — know that I am blinded by my admiration for this group, so I have nothing ill to say about them.
Now, this all started a few years ago. I was driving around by the west side Hy-Vee in Ames, listening to KURE, per usual, when I heard the song “July, July!” for the first time. I loved it instantly, and I went home and downloaded a few songs by this new band that I had just heard. That download session included Castaways and Cutouts, Picaresque and “The Tain” — a five-part song that clocks in just under 19 minutes. I was blown away by most of the songs, and let down by a few. For the most part, though, I thought I had found a new band that I could enjoy for a long time.
That thought was fortified with their last two albums, both of which were in my Top 10 lists the year of their respective releases. The Crane Wife was a beautiful record retelling, partly, and old Japanese folk tale. Songs like “Shankhill Butchers” and “O Valencia!” had me spinning that one constantly. Then, the last Decemberists record, Hazards of Love, came out. A huge, sprawling rock opera that has twists and turns unforeseen and an amazing narrative all its own. We saw the album performed in its entirety at Lollapalooza 2009, and the performance only added to my respect and awe for the band.
If it were me, I would have been resting on those huge laurels for a while. I mean like Dr. Dre-type resting. Maybe wait a decade before I put out anything else — let the myth grow. The Decemberists, however, do not feel that way. They either lack the laziness gene that is ever dominating my lifestyle, or they have so much love for creating music, they just couldn’t wait.
And I am so, so glad they didn’t put off releasing The King Is Dead. It is certainly a departure from the music they’ve been making lately. Call it country, or Americana, or even bluegrass — I call it, simply, Traditional. Much like a lot of bands currently, there is an underlying feeling of hillsongs, or Appalachian music that runs throughout the album.
The album wastes no time creating the atmosphere The Decemberists are going after. “Don’t Carry It All” starts off with a drum and a harmonica, with jangly guitar and a foot-stompin’ groove. When Colin Meloy joins in with his voice, you’re instantly taken away to a cabin in the woods, gathered with your friends and family around a campfire singing and carrying on like they did in the good old days (when things weren’t really that good-like no indoor plumbing).
The absolute high point for the album comes about track five, “Rox in the Box.” When I saw the title, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the old Dylan tune, “On the Road Again” (Frogs inside my socks — anyone else think of this when they saw that title?). Well, this tune is not anything like Dylan’s. Built a little like a chain gang ballad, the song is a sing-a-long in the darkest sense. “Rox in the Box” also contains what is easily my favorite lyric of the record:
“Of dirt you’re made, and to dirt you will return/So while you’re livin’ here, let’s get to settle one thing clear/there’s plenty of men to die, don’t jump your turn”
The rest of the record plays out like a gorgeous combination of Woody Guthrie and James Taylor-heart-wrenching, deep, contemplative lyrics, mixed with a sweetness and silky smooth vocals by Meloy that have been absent from anything else he’s done.
When we finally get to the lead single, “Down by the Water,” the song takes on a completely new feel. Away from the rest of the album, the song plays like a cheap R.E.M. cover tune, but when it’s heard in the context of the album, it fits in perfectly. Nowhere near my favorite song from The King Is Dead, I think it probably is the one with the widest appeal. Most people hear the R.E.M. right away, but I’d also say there’s some John Cougar Mellencamp in there as well.
The Decemberists spend a lot of time playing music. When they’re not playing together, they’re joining other artists. That dedication and love of what they do shines through on every track from The King Is Dead. I almost feel bad that I didn’t wait until its release date to hear it. Now that I have, I feel like I should go back and revise my Top Ten List for 2010, but that would be cheating.
The King Is Dead is a lot of fun. Much more than the last two Decemberists records. I think it’s a step in the right direction for them to take a break from some of the heavier material they’ve been dealing with the last few years. I can’t wait to see this album performed live. I HIGHLY recommend picking up this release. You may just want to start your own jug band after listening a couple times.
- The Decemberists hail from Portland, Oregon. The band is comprised of: Colin Meloy, Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query and John Moen. Peter Buck (of R.E.M.) is featured on three songs.
- The single “Down By The Water” is available for download from their website.
- The Decemberists will be playing at Riviera Theatre on February 4. Tickets here.