ALBUM REVIEW: The Decemberists - The King Is Dead

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CAPITOL | 1.18.11 | MOG | AMAZON | INSOUND | ITUNES

D+ — [Rating Scale] [STREAM ENTIRE ALBUM]

Ready for a template review of The Decemberists’ The King Is Dead? Here’s how it goes:

Introductory sentence outlining the Portland band’s penchant for historical references and literary lyrics on their first five albums. Reference to one of their longer songs (choose between the twelve minute “The Island,” the eleven minute “The Crane Wife 1 & 2,” or the eight and a half minute “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”; if you want to show off, cite debut album closer "California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade"). Declarative statement about how this album is The Decemberists as we’ve never heard them before.

Something like: “No, lead singer Colin Meloy hasn’t [thesaurus: “gotten rid of”] his loquacious vocabulary.” Sentence about how it’s the sound and structure that has changed. “Gone are the epic songs, replaced by short, compact bursts of wonderful melody.” Taking a page out of [R.E.M./The Smiths]’s book (Fact Bomb: Pete Buck from R.E.M. plays on the album!) Meloy and co. focus on punchy songs that avoid overindulgence, boiling down The Decemberists sound without losing the flavor. Blah blah blah, you get the point.

Stop it. Just stop it. I’ve heard the Decemberists like this before. You’ve heard the Decemberists like this before. Just because the album – which clocks in a 10 songs and just a touch over 40 minutes – is short and doesn’t have a song longer than 6 minutes doesn’t mean it’s a complete change for the band. Almost every song on the album has a parallel equivalent in their previous work. If anything, this supposedly compact album drags, as if there’s supposed to be something a little more here. The songs don’t sound simplistic, they sound like they’re strapped down to click tracks set a few ticks too slow.

So dash those ideas of a new beginning, and listen to the album like you would an old standard. After opening with a brazen harmonica sustain, The King Is Dead settles into warmly familiar territory. “Don’t Carry It All” is all seasons and uplifting major keys, while “Calamity Song” takes us back to angels in Andalucia. The album’s fourth song, “Rox In The Box,” is a “Summersong” doppelganger that uses cutesy rhymes in a melancholy coalminer’s singsong – just the sort of ballad that will hit fans as comfortingly normal. Although “June Hymn” hardly seems fit for sunny summer days, its ties to “January Hymn,” which comes a few tracks earlier, give the album some of the conceptual and thematic cohesion that we’ve come to expect from this band.

Sonically there are a few changes, sure. There’s more harmonica, the instrumentation is generally a bit clearer, and Meloy’s voice continues its march to the forefront of the band’s sound. Gillian Welch adds some lovely female counter-balance to Meloy’s voice on tracks like “Dear Avery,” saving the album from slipping into monotony. At it’s core, though, The King Is Dead isn’t a far step from anything The Decemberists have done before.

The King Is Dead is a fine album. I like it enough – the songs are catchy, the lyrics are interesting enough to grab my attention at times. But it’s just that: A fine album. The band chooses not to indulge its dorkier, more whimsical side – there aren’t as many references to chimbley sweeps and Shankhill Butchers, and the album is devoid of sea shanties. This isn’t a blank slate re-start for the band, they’ve just erased some words from the blackboard.

It seems like we’ve forgotten that The Decemberists have always toed the line between folk, rock, and pop; they’ve always been a radio-friendly band. Over the band’s 11 years, two things have separated them from other bands with good musicians and an ear for melody: their unpredictable mood from song to song, their librarygoing lyrical content and Colin Meloy’s voice. Those three factors have always worked symbiotically. Meloy’s solo releases – mostly cover albums of well known singers – don’t capture the energy of Decemberists albums; the Decemberists would clearly suffer without Meloy at the helm.

On The King Is Dead, though, The Decemberists seem muted, as if someone yelled at them to stop daydreaming and just get back to playing harmonica. The band’s quirky personality is watered down – an ironic consequence of an album that has been touted as a condensation of the band’s sound. Meloy has said that the record was heavily influenced by R.E.M., and in fact (as referenced cheekily above) that band’s guitarist Peter Buck contributed to three songs. It’s a worthy aspiration for The Decemberists; if ever there was a band that found commercial success without sacrificing lyrical depth it was R.E.M. I just wonder if The Decemberists should be looking externally for inspiration. They have done a great job breaking the mold thus far on their own, and this album is a regression to the average.

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