When the Decemberists signed with Capitol Records, back in 2006, concern arose among some fans that the label would pressure the Portland rockers to push for more mainstream appeal. Instead, the band released what may have been their most inaccessible recordings to date: The Crane Wife
, half concept album, half eclectic mix of tracks, including an eerie lullaby about the Shankill Butchers, and 2009's The Hazards Of Love
, a rock opera set in a medieval fantasy world, in which the spirit of the forest serves as the lead antagonist. Nevertheless, the band continued to sell out concerts, due largely to a devout fan base who eagerly embrace a challenge; it seems like the biggest risk the Decemberists could take would be recording a stripped-down folk rock album, a la Tarkio circa '99.
Naturally, that's exactly what happened, with pronounced country influences, no less. Despite the allusion in the album's title, The King Is Dead
sounds more like R.E.M.'s Reckoning
than the iconic LP by The Smiths, an effect which is further enhanced by the presence of R.E.M.'s own Peter Buck, and backing vocals by Gillian Welch. The album hits its stride with the help of its guests, on "Calamity Song" and "Down By The Water", but the Decemberists hold their own own just fine; the high-tempo riffs and measured build of "This Is Why We Fight" lend an energy that rivals "When The Wars Came", and the uncharacteristically minimal arrangement provides the ideal setting for the downright pretty "January Hymn" and "June Hymn", ballads in the spirit of Her Majesty's "Red Right Ankle" and Picaresque's "Of Angels And Angles."
Considering the Decemberists' catalog, the lyrics do contain an astonishing lack of anachronism. Although the band's frontman Colin Meloy persists in his penchant for SAT vocabulary, prostitutes, murderers and the usual bevy of nautical terms take a back seat, in favor of more contemporary themes. Songs come across as more personal than narrative, and a sense of fellowship pervades the sound, as on the album's opening track ("We are all our hands and holders/ Beneath this bold and brilliant sun"), and with tenderness on "Dear Avery. What the lyrics lack in novelty, compared to "A Cautionary Tale", for instance, they make up for in relatability.
In general, The King Is Dead
does not came as a radical departure from anything they've done before; add some strings and a harmonica to "Summersong" and you more or less have "Rox In The Box", and leanings toward their roots abound. But the band has grown enormously since Five Songs EP a decade ago, both in technical skill and maturity. Finally, on The King Is Dead, those qualities work in unison. If Capitol had been hoping for a more marketable record than Picaresque, this might be their best shot yet, but long-time fans need not be concerned: the band's identity holds firm.
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MP3: "Down By The Water"
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