Some people still have no idea how Colin Meloy and friends got away with the whole Decemberists thing. Ask any music fan 10 or 15 years ago if a band inspired by Morrissey and the English folk revival (who, by the way, sounded like they had just disembarked a haunted pirate ship) would ever make it big, and they would have said, ‘Morrissey who? You lost me at the beginning’. But the thing about The Decemberists is that beneath the historicist-theatrics Meloy is actually a really, really good songwriter with a really, really good band – and we happen to live in a moment where that matters (i.e. it’s just not the 90s anymore).
The Decemberists newest adventure in getting away with things is the album The King is Dead. Their last album – The Hazards of Love – was an acclaimed, sprawling rock opera of epic proportion, the likes of which is rarely attempted in the era of the pop single. In contraposition, The King Is Dead is nowhere near sprawling, and nowhere near epic. This is a wise follow-up album, straightforward and highly accessible.
Why ‘wise’? A wise artist will often follow up something complex with something simple, knowing that there is a time to not try and top yourself, a time to give your listeners’ ears and intellects a rest, and a time to not distance yourself further from the mainstream head-scratchers. On this outing there are no quirky pirate ditties, no 10 minute story songs, no Zepp-ish metal breakdowns. The point here is to be folky, down-to-earth, populist, and likeable – and to prove to us they could have done it all along.
The sound here is reminiscent of the warm folk and country fare of their first major label venture, The Crane Wife, with acoustic rhythm at the forefront, plenty of harmonica, constant backup vocal follow by Gillian Welch, and just a tad bit of honky-tonk. The band is back in top form with smart, clear, complementary instrumentation carefully aligning into some of the most wonderful arrangements they have produced to date. Such wonderful harmonies from such an eclectic set of musicians.
There’s not a bad song in the bunch, as usual. The opener ‘Don’t Carry It All’, marches victoriously in, followed by the soon-to-be single ‘Calamity Song’. Other songs of note are ‘All Arise’ and the pre-released viral tracks ‘Down By The Water’ and ‘Rise To Me’. And unlike previous releases – with most songs bound to the album’s genre, structure, and format – expect to hear a lot of this album on the radio, TV, film, wherever.
And it’s about time. If you’re one of those who always thought The Decemberists were ‘too weird’, you’re in luck – you’ll love The King Is Dead. And those who have never heard of The Decemberists, this is a great place to start. Long time fans will just sit back and smile.