Tempting as it may be to write off The Decemberists into the mighty-mild granola-flavored folk-rock category -just because their CDs are sold at Starbucks and one of them has a beard sometimes- it would be a huge injustice to do so.
I was first turned on to the group’s 2005 effort Picaresque a few years ago, and to this day I think it still packs more punch than any subsequent effort. That said, I have to tip my hat to Colin Meloy and crew for continually pushing themselves to create new an interesting music with each subsequent effort. Immediately following Picaresque was The Crane Wife, which it a textbook example of what I consider a true album: cohesive and fluid without feeling gimmicky.
Following that was The Hazards of Love, which along with the rest of their back catalog I haven’t devoted any extensive time to. So now you know my frame of reference for the group.
All that exposition said, The King is Dead is one of the first good records of 2011. There are 3-4 really fantastic hard-hitting tracks which are neatly packaged with some more traditional (at least to my limited understanding of folk music) tunes that make for a really odd, but not at all unpleasant, assortment.
Right now my favorite song on the album is ‘Rox In The Box‘. Admittedly, I’ve not the slightest clue what the song is about, but the sort of bounce that the melody has is really catchy, and the soundscape is very rich (fiddle-type-thing, accordion-type-thing, guitar, bass, vocal harmonies, etc.).
That track is the 4th, but also of note is a pretty solid 1-2 opening set, with the sauntering and confident ‘Don’t Carry It All’ never getting ahead of itself, setting the tone for the record, and ‘Calamity Song’ (whose guitar line for the life of me keeps evoking REM’s ‘Driver 8′). The latter of which is in the vein of “Yankee Bayonet’ off Crane Wife for those familiar with the tune.
The two “hymns” (January and June) are the slowest points, but they’re not bad, and in fact get stuck in my head more often then my more preferred tracks.
Nestled into the penultimate slot is ‘This Is Why We Fight‘, a raw, unrestrained anthem about perseverance.
One might complain that the lyrics never really explain the exact why behind the ‘fighting’, but I think that’s what I like about it: it’s not so much generic as it is universal. Everybody’s seen rough times and needed to stick it out, for whatever the reasons, and the song applies almost just as well to a battle cry as it does an emotional embrace, which is really kinda cool when you think about it.
And here I’ve gotten all this way and not mentioned the single ‘Down By the Water’ which is a fantastic summary of what makes the Decemberists worth your time: half grit and half heart, it’s music that makes you feel.
While maybe not the most cohesive collection of songs, especially in comparison to their previous works, it’s 40 minutes of musicians striving to create something worth listening to, and you’d be hard-pressed to argue with the result.