For those of you who might have decided to dismiss The Decemberists after 2009’s Hazards of Love (myself included), it’s time to jump back on the winter train and listen to The King is Dead. Released in January 2011, this album is an orgasmically great start to the new year. The 10-track record is Decemberists at their finest with nicely done additions – including paying homage to The Smiths and R.E.M., as well as sounding ridiculously like Neil Young with smooth traces of Bob Dylan. It’s beautifully collaborated folk, dance and bluegrass that is uncontrollably addicting.
The Decemberists offer a refreshing taste of a more American roots-based album with The King is Dead. Because they turn to a folkier sound, they’ve traded in their lyrical ballads of fantastical metaphors for some simpler one-liners, like “You were waking/ Day was breaking/ A panoply of song/ The summer comes to Springville” off “June Hymn.” This works, and shouldn’t be seen as lead singer/songwriter Colin Meloy’s attempt to dumb down his lyrics. It just tends to work better in the sort of genre they’re going for on this record.
“Don’t Carry it All” begins the record with a blaring harmonica and Meloy’s nasaly voice introducing, “Here we come to a turning of the season.” It is such an inviting track to open with, drawing the audience with its repetitive drum beat and soothing strings. Perfect harmonies enhance each vocal line, especially on tracks like “Calamity Song” and “This Is Why We Fight.”
Like a typical Decemberists theme, “Rox in the Box” sounds like splashy days at sea, swarming with pirates and scurvy; however, the lyrics depict the working class and more specifically, miners, “Get the rocks in the box/ Get the water right down to your socks/This bulkhead’s built of fallen brethren’s bones.”
Two tracks on the album, “January Hymn” and “June Hymn” bring about pastoral ballads that older Decemberists can be known for, like “California One/ Youth and Beauty Brigade” off of 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts. Slowing down the pace of the album, these songs are classic beauties.
“Down By The Water” is very reminiscent of R.E.M’s “One I Love,” with a similar melody that works out pretty well, taking in the fact that R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck plays on three tracks on the album. Since R.E.M. is littered all over the album, you can’t help feeling that plentiful nostalgia of the early ‘90s.
Although there are no fairies or allegorical characters filtered throughout this album, something that many Decemberists fans may be upset about, The King is Dead is a solid release. It’s riding high on that neo-folk/bluegrass ship that new artists are drowning in everyday. And even if this album’s not working for you now, oh man, think about how sick it’s going to be in the summer. Car windows down, shorts, suntans. Yes.
“Rox in the Box’s” catchy chorus sings, “And if you ever make it to 10 you won’t make it again,” but that’s bullshit because hell yeah, Decemberists made it to 10 and I have no doubt they’ll make it again.