The Decemberists – The King is Dead
Brian returns from a lengthy vacation to review the newest album from The Decemberists.
The latest album by The Decemberists achieves something that few records do these days; as soon as I hear it, I instantly feel the impulse to scan the room in search of an acoustic guitar. The King is Dead is ten songs and forty minutes of reaching for the elation of feeling, projecting songs that could be sung in the open prairie around a fire with your closest friends under the stars on a warm evening. It tugs at the strings of what only exists in the listener’s mind, that mythical place of nostalgia for the way it used to be, a kind of static momentum that is all feeling of motion without the need to actually move.
When we last left The Decemberists, they had released their exquisite album The Hazards of Love, and subsequently taken more than a few critical hits over the height of its ambition. That album was all about the grandiose, complex narrative of a prog-rock opera, and obviously not everyone’s cup of tea. The King Is Dead strips away extraneous flourish and boils each song down to its essentials; it’s as straightforward an album as the previous album was elaborate, less Corinthian and more Doric.
A lot of fuss has been made drawing parallels between REM’s Document/Eponymous days and The King is Dead. And yes, there’s quite a feel of that here, with its jangles and backbeats, and Peter Buck even appearing on three songs. But I think that there is a lot more to pull apart here, and you don’t have to go further than the title to see the Smiths/Morrissey nod. But it’s a gentler, kinder Morrissey that Colin Meloy channels, the kind of Morrissey that you take home to meet your mom, the kind of Morrissey that is your next door neighbor and bakes apple pies for you. With different teeth and a boost in the surly, This Is Why We Fight could have fit easily and perfectly on Are The Quarry.
Make no mistake, there is no prog-rock opera here; this is an album of songs. It reminds me of the idea of the first Counting Crows album, that breath of fresh air that showed a song well constructed could stand on its own without an electric guitar. These stellar, crisp acoustic guitars really do sound amazing. It says a lot about the engineering of sound when the quality makes you want to reach for the nearest instrument. Don’t Carry It All opens the album with a boom-boom-whack and a harmonica that sets the tone for this collection of homespun rock of the folkiest kind.
Somehow, The Decemberists are consistently able to pump out instantly singable melodies that feel like déjà vu, like you sang these songs everyday in a past life. Background vocals and harmonies are able and hauntingly handled by Gillian Welch at just the right hair-raising places. Colin Meloy does these melodies that are in higher end of his range while having the female harmony singer with a naturally higher voice do the lower harmony part. It’s the blend that etches directly into your hippoampus. Case in point: Rox In The Box- “And it’s One Two Three on the wrong side of the lee”, just try not to sing along the second time you hear it. It’s almost like a common human genetic trend that identifies and reverberates melodies, resonating in the deep recesses of the brain.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the influences are as long as it feels right, and this album has a great feel. Don’t Carry It All shows that this album is about the elements; Calamity Song is a great example of that Athens Backbeat, Down By The Water falls on the laidback side of The Smiths, they all fall together like shuffling a deck of cards. Despite whether you find this album to hearken to the early days of REM or fall in line with Moz, just make sure that you find it. Your Spring and Summer will thank you.
Brian S. Meurer