Thursday, August 11, 2011
The Decemberists - The King Is Dead
1. Don’t Carry It All
2. Calamity Song
3. Rise to Me
4. Rox in the Box
5. January Hymn
6. Down By the Water
7. All Arise!
8. June Hymn
9. This Is Why We Fight
10. Dear Avery
Like any band with a clear, identifiable concept-- in this case, a penchant for verbose, high-concept screeds-- the Decemberists are beloved and chastised for all the same reasons: The quirks that make them such a target for snickering, disaffected aesthetes (namely, stuffing their songs with arcane historical allusions and library language) are also what make them a boon for drama kids in three-button vests.
Whether the Decemberists are actually any nerdier than, say, Animal Collective isn't worth arguing-- the ambition is the thing, and the Decemberists reached a gumption apex on 2009's The Hazards of Love, a proggy rock opera based loosely on an EP by the British folk singer Anne Briggs. The record follows the story of a woman who falls in love with a shape-shifting creature she meets in the woods; there's forest-sex, spells, an overbearing queen, and plenty of thick, quasi-metal guitar. As an antidote of sorts, the band comes back with The King Is Dead, a breezy country-folk record with no discernable narrative. The concept here-- wait for it-- is that there is no concept.
Recorded in a converted barn on Oregon's Pendarvis Farm, The King Is Dead eschews the high, mystical wailing of British folk for its North American counterpart. Rustic and roomy, the record nods to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, early Wilco, the Band, Neil Young, and especially R.E.M. In places, it almost feels like a disrobing: "Let the yoke fall from our shoulders," frontman Colin Meloy bellows on opener "Don't Carry It All", his voice loose and easy, freer than he's sounded in an awfully long time.
Meloy is an established fan of certain strains of Americana music, and he's enlisted a few inimitable guests: R.E.M.'s Peter Buck plays on three tracks, Gillian Welch sings on seven, and Welch's songwriting partner, the guitarist Dave Rawlings, appears every so often as a backing vocalist. There are moments when the record's twang can feel a little overcooked (the Decemberists have never been great at spontaneity, exactly), but there's an interesting tension between the inherent unpretentiousness of country music-- it's rural, it's populist, it's based in universal emotions-- and the Decemberists' literary cartwheeling. So while there's still plenty of fussy wordplay ("Hetty Green/ Queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab," Meloy bleats in "Calamity Song") and at least one Infinite Jest joke, there are also loads of simple, rousing choruses. In the past, Meloy's ability to write a sweet, memorable melody has occasionally gotten lost, but on King, his songwriting shines.
A few tracks feel like homage ("Down By the Water" is an easy analogue of "The One I Love", while "All Arise!" seems to repurpose bits of "Honky Tonk Women"), but mostly they're solid showcases for the band's best features: On the exquisitely pastoral (and guest-free) "January Hymn", Meloy sings about time and snow ("April all an ocean away/ Is this the better way to spend the day?") while Chris Funk adds the tiniest bit of octave guitar to Meloy's acoustic strums.
For all its rural pedigrees, The King Is Dead is still a clean and meticulously crafted album; the production is smooth and the performances are unnervingly error-free. Consequently, it's missing a little vulnerability-- the best Americana records tend to feel a little lawless, but the Decemberists just can't quite relinquish control...www.pitchfork.com