When considering where to take your career after a hectic prog/folk opera about immortal forest sprites, featuring guest stars with enough indie cred to melt the Pitchfork offices to the ground, you really only have two options: go big or go home. The Decemberists, curiously, chose to go home. After five LPs and nearly a decade of growing steadily weirder, louder, more ambitious and more pretentious, Colin Meloy has taken his band in for reformatting. Despite the imposing title, The King Is Dead contains no eleven-minute song cycles or Roman numerals or subtitles. The Decemberists have been notable for hurtling down that path even after signing with a major label in 2005, but with the new release we suddenly find them back in the comparatively mainstream world of moderately quirky alt-country. It’s jarring, but not unwelcome.
Understandably for a group looking to get back to basics, The King Is Dead sounds exceedingly close to Meloy’s former band Tarkio, a University of Montana project from before Meloy moved to Portland to join the indie gold rush. Harmonica and hints of blues are everywhere, as though this disc fell out of a parallel universe where the Decemberists rode out Neil Young’s slipstream rather than Neutral Milk Hotel’s. What doesn’t sound like Tarkio or Young sounds like Meloy’s other deep influences — ’80s/’90s alternative rock like R.E.M. and Irish folk artists like Shirley Collins — but above all The King Is Dead is soaked in Tarkio’s Montana earnestness.
Some of the band’s surviving pop sensibilities are sacrificed along with the prog oddity, and the album only contains only one real rock song in its lead single ‘Down by the Water’. Meloy’s imaginative word choices also take a heavy hit this time around — I always liked to picture him in another life as a satisfied AP English teacher, fussing with a red pen over exam questions like “charabanc is to balustrade as palanquin is to a) bombazine; b) folderol; c) parapet; d) pantaloon,” but the new lyrics are largely stripped of his trademark vocabulary lessons. The King Is Dead’s more candid attitude does pay off, though. ‘January Hymn’ in particular is one of their strongest ballads so far, sanding down the coarse, conflicted aesthetic of ‘Red Right Ankle’ into something that rings more clearly.
For all the abruptness of the Decemberists’ transition to their new-old sound, one trend has been consistent over their last few releases long before the decision to rip the band out of its nautical/mythological play space. They’ve been trying harder to tell serious stories seriously, less interested in spinning silly yarns about pirates and whores and legionnaires. In retrospect, The Crane Wife’s three-part title track is striking in how little it’s willing to have fun with its source material, and you could never say that the previously mentioned prog/folk opera The Hazards of Love didn’t take itself seriously enough. With The King Is Dead, that conservatism appears to be carrying over to their musical choices as well. They say authenticity is the new irony, and at least in the case of these restless Decemberists it rings true.
Tags: The Decemberists