For any ardent fan holding out hope that the Decemberists would return to some more conventional, recognizable form with The King Is Dead, I have some interesting news. While the Victorian mythological trappings and rock-opera styling of The Hazards of Love are no more, this is not a band revisiting the pop-radio friendly hits of The Crane Wife. In fact, this isn't even a band dialing back to the jaunty, shanty songs of Picaresque or the sad laments of Castaways and Cutouts. The Decemberists who come before us for 2011 (and technically 2010, given the recording dates) are a new, different breed than we have seen before. Yes, Colin Meloy's voice remain strong and hinted with syrupy exasperation, and the majority of the instrumentation, acoustic guitars, keys and high-energy drums are here too, but the Decemberists are a new kind of animal. They've gone a little bit country.
More than any other band I have followed, the Decemberists have mastered the concept of musical hybridization. They have succeeded through constantly changing, and at each stop along their maturation, the song writing and musicianship reaches a new height of proficiency. In The King Is Dead, they succeed in bringing in banjos, harmonicas and infusing traditional American folk, country and some blues-driven songs. What's even more beautiful is that Colin Meloy manages to write the lyrics he had always been adept at, matching them to this new musical style (something that walks around Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel, R.E.M. and Joni Mitchell). The R.E.M. likeness is especially important because guitarist Peter Buck is featured on three tracks ("Don't Carry It All," "Calamity Song," and the mindblowingly exceptional "Down By The Water.")
The album feels like a grower to me. I have twice listened to it through the amazing power of NPR and the internet, and I recommend you do the same. So far, the big stand-outs on this album are the aforementioned "Down By The Water," which is a phenomenal rock-country infusion that is instantly catchy without relying on a grating riff, and the second to last song on the album "This Is Why We Fight." In "Fight" you get some of Meloy's war-protesting-but-still-fighting lyrical and vocal power, the kind we've seen before on "When The War Came" and "Sixteen Military Wives." Really, take a moment to watch the second video. It's worth more than a chuckle. It's both a sweet and a powerful song, and it's the perfect lift before the calm album ending love-letter "Dear Avery." And beyond even these initial attachments, the album works well through its 40-plus minutes, treating us to a powerful opener that's heavy on harmonica and drums ("Don't Carry It All") and the delicate "January Hymn."
If you consider yourself a fan of Colin Meloy's writing, a fan of the Decemberists, then this album will once more challenge your perception of the band, but ultimately you will love it. One thing this band always seems to teach us is that new directions are more interesting, even if they seem initially to be failures, than sticking with old ones. Listen to The King Is Dead, and you will find something to love in it.
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