Decibel : Building a dynasty: The Decemberists’ new album continues band’s strong streak
Album: ‘The King is Dead’
Artist: The Decemberists
Sounds Like: Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen’s musical lovechild
Release Date: Jan. 18, 2011
The Decemberists’ 2009 release, ‘Hazards of Love,’ was an album of epic proportions, a sprawling array of indie-folk soundscapes. The record featured sweeping orchestral arrangements and convoluted lyrical story arcs that left even the most resolute music critics swooning over the musical craftsmanship displayed by lead singer Colin Meloy.
To follow up its previous ambitious effort, the Oregon indie outfit played it closer to the belt, and instead of pretentiously attempting to write ‘Hazards of Love: Part Two,‘ the band went back to its roots to write a nostalgic Americana folk record. ‘The King is Dead’ may come across as an anachronism, but it is refreshingly relevant in today’s music scene as it pays homage to the band’s folk-rock forefathers.
The album opens with ‘Don’t Carry It All,’ which gives the blues an injection of a heavy dose of optimism. A wistful harmonica solo paves the way for Meloy’s breezy voice to soar, while Chris Funk strums the acoustic guitar with an undeniable country twang. The track passes the up-tempo torch onto ‘Calamity Song,’ a lighthearted track with a rousing chorus that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Simon and Garfunkel album.
The Decemberists are at their best when they rely on their signature rollicking folk melodies but hold their own when it comes to easing off from the energy. ‘Rise to Me’ showcases twangy steel guitars, a mournful harmonica and Meloy’s defiance-oozing vocals. Listening to the heavy-hearted ‘January Hymn’ should be required for Syracuse University students struggling through the mid-winter blues. The Decemberists have a knack for writing sorrowful tracks without coming across as indie-rock’s resident sad-sacks.
‘Rox in the Box’ is a Celtic-tinged ditty paced by a cleverly included rustic string section, but it seems out of place on the album sandwiched between two more melancholy numbers. ‘The King is Dead’ picks up from its pensive flow with ‘Down By the River,’ an earthy Bruce Springsteen-esque tune with Gillian Welch of ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ fame to back Meloy up on the microphone.
Vibrant fiddles and a jaunty parlor piano make appearances on the bouncy, Bob Dylan-reminiscent ‘All Arise!’ which segues into the subdued acoustic guitar and longingly contemplative harmonica that compose ‘June Hymn.’ Though the track has several facets that recall the earlier ‘January Hymn,’ it is full of as much hope as the first day of spring.
‘This is Why We Fight’ clocks in at just under six minutes. Although it is the longest track on ‘The King is Dead,’ it carries with it Meloy’s most urgent vocals on the album. The album rounds to a close with the lethargic ‘Dear Avery,’ which appears content to crawl slowly along without finding its legs with any kind of build-up or a crowd-pleasing chorus. The forlorn guitar riffs and heart-wrenching piano chords accentuate the raw emotional duet of Meloy and Welch, but the Decemberists would have done the album more justice by going out with a bang, not a whisper.
‘The King is Dead’ is an album about the blues in the same way that ‘Citizen Kane’ is a movie about sleds: Meloy’s earnest songwriting tugs at the listeners’ heartstrings, vulnerably empathizing with feelings of nostalgia and wistfulness but maintaining a bright-eyed hopefulness that remains throughout the record.
Though ‘The King is Dead’ is a far cry from the complex rock opera that was ‘Hazards of Love,’ the Decemberists have discovered a niche in their extensive repertoire for the bluesy folk sounds of the American heartland.
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