The Decemberists – The King Is Dead Album Review
There is now no reason why anyone should dislike The Decemberists.
Before the release of The King Is Dead, the band’s sixth album, I could understand why this bookish Portland troupe wouldn’t appeal to everyone. They wrote long, dense, head-scratchingly complex concept albums about high highfalutin folktales and obscure nuggets of academia. Basically, they were the kind of band who would drool over the word “highfalutin” whilst beating you senseless in a game of Scrabble. There isn’t anything explicitly wrong about that approach to music, but it is no wonder that it alienates just as many people as it entices.
That’s why The King Is Dead is such a breath of fresh of air for The Decemberists – it’s the exact opposite, a chance for them to put down their inkwells and quill pens (that’s how I imagine them writing anyways) and spill their hearts, unburdened by strict conceptual flights of fancy, directly into the songs and our ears.
The accessibility that defines this album comes with no price to pay in the integrity department. By that, I mean that The Decemberists did not just go into the studio with the intention of changing their sound so that they could attract a wider audience. There is no sense of any sort of pandering whatsoever. Instead, we just have a straight-forward collection of rock, folk, and alt-country steeped in the essence of Americana and a fascination with nature.
And boy do the nature references abound. These songs are loaded with the verdant imagery of soil, arbors, seasons, sun, loam, mountains, and ivy. Colin Meloy and crew sloughed off the stuffiness of yore and returned quite literally to their roots. The natural elements that imbue these songs with life are quasi-spiritual, hearkening back to a time when people and land were viscerally connected. In that sense, “Rise To Me,” is the cornerstone track on the record. Meloy, as the personification of nature itself, warns of the consequences of challenging him, singing, “I am going to stand my ground / You rise to me and I’ll blow you down.” It’s sung not with malice, but with a deep sense of authority, and it’s preceded by the acknowledgement that “These tree trunks, these stream beds / Leave our bellies full.”
There are also themes of societal responsibility and fatherhood permeating the album. The opener, “Don’t Carry It All,” could pass for a socialist anthem with its stomping beat and beautiful refrain, “A neighbor’s blessed burden within reason / Becomes a burden borne of all and one.” And the aforementioned “Rise To Me” has an honest-to-goodness stop-you-in-your-tracks moment when Meloy yelps, “Hey Henry, can you hear me? / Let me see those eyes / This distance between us / Can seem a mountain size.” He’s singing about his young son who has autism and struggles with eye contact. It’s a gorgeous, heart-wrenching moment, and it transforms the chorus from one about the power of nature to the power of a father who would do anything to protect his son. It’s a simply magnificent song – and not nearly the only one on the record.
The music matches the subject matter. If any modern band can pull of “sublimely pastoral” as their chosen medium, it’s this one – equipped as they are with their handy organ, harmonica, accordion, and pedal steel talents. And if you think the lead single “Down By The Water,” sounds a bit like R.E.M., that’s probably because Peter Buck himself appears on it (as well as two other songs).
The King Is Dead is one of my favorite albums of this year. If you’d never heard of The Decemberists before now, you wouldn’t be able to tell that this was a band that had substantially altered the core of their sound. But that’s only because they did it so masterfully. Sometimes less is more. And if you hadn’t heard of this band before (or you had and just decided they weren’t for you), you owe it to yourself to give this record a spin.