posted on January 13, 2011 18:00
A review of the album 'The King is Dead' by The Decemberists
Review Snapshot: Casual listeners to the Decemberists will be glad to learn that the group's sixth album, ‘The King is Dead’, is a return to their folksy beginnings, combining the group's not inconsiderable musical talents and country rock sensibilities with the inimitable voice and witticisms of front man Colin Meloy. And without an enchanted forest or pantomime villain in sight, perhaps we can all get back to liking them again.
The Cluas Verdict? 8 out of 10
Full Review: It required a decidedly hardcore Decemberists fan to remain loyal to the Portland outfit following the inexplicable 2009 album ‘Hazards of Love’. A concept album about a forbidden relationship in a forest of the lead singer’s imagination, 'Hazards of Love' was an unremittingly self-indulgent project by the group that only served to repel the occasional listener and furthermore give the bands detractors, who had dismissed them as an arrogant bunch of sods, a fair amount of credibility.
Of course it is not difficult to understand the band's flirtation with the concept album. After all, Meloy’s ability to spin a yarn is essentially the band's chief strength. The problem with ‘Hazards of Love’ however, was that it was outrageously complex and at times pretty boring. You basically needed a degree in English and a s**t load of time on your hands to get what the story was about and when you did the payoff didn’t seem worth it. At the end of the day there is nothing wrong with a bit of ambition, but don’t take the piss.
We can forgive them one blunder though and accept that 'Hazards of Love' is to the Decemberists what a gap year is to a student. And to their credit the group seem to have learned their lesson with ‘The King is Dead’ retreating to safe ground and a more conventional format.
Peter Buck of REM was brought in for three tracks and his involvement does not go unnoticed. The opening riff of ‘Calamity Song’ is quite similar to that of REM’s ‘Talk about the Passion’ from their seminal album ‘Murmur’ all those years ago, while lead single ‘Down by the Water’ sounds like a cross between the aforementioned rock pioneers and Springsteen. It is as awesome as a mixture of those two ought to be.
At times the album feels light and breezy with the sing a long ‘Don’t Carry it All’ and ‘All Arise’, only to turn deeply intimate and touching with the ballads ‘January Hymn’ and ‘June Hymn’ which are arguably two of the group's best songs to date. They really ground the record before it gets a little too light and breezy and floats out of mind.
It is also a good deal more country sounding than previous records, with harmonica and steel guitar making appearances from time to time. But the Decemberists could play death metal and still be distinctive so unique is the voice and lyrics of their front man. For example on ‘Rox in the Box’ he sings:
“Get the Rox in the box / Get the Water right down to your socks / This Bulkhead’s built of fallen brethren bones”
It is difficult to imagine anyone else writing those lyrics about the workaday world and have it taken seriously. But there is sincerity to the offering, as Meloy sings throughout about finding your way through this mean old world.
The record is instantly likeable and more so with each listen. Even when placed beside past glories, ‘The Crane Wife’ and ‘Picaresque’, their latest holds its own. There was a lot riding on this album for the band and in fairness to them, they really have delivered.
And so another chapter is written in the annals of the Decemberists: They came, they saw, they conquered, they made a concept album and then they conquered again.