The Decemberists – The King is Dead: A Brief Review

The last Decemberists effort was too grand, too asymmetrical and too off-the-wall for me to truly dig into.  Rumour has it, The Hazzards of Love is AMAZING live; I wouldn’t know – I can only go by the album, which I found bloated, difficult and subpar, despite my desire to like it.  The thing about concept albums that are SO conceptual, is that they only fare well on their own as an entity; sometimes on their own they’re GREAT and individual gems stand out as well (great example of this: Sufjan Stevens’ Cum on Feel the Illinoise).  But I just don’t believe that Colin Meloy and his Decemberists really hit the mark in the fine concert album/rock opera tradition.  I have really enjoyed their past efforts, especially Crane Wife (but who, who knows their stuff, doesn’t love Crane Wife?) but recently, I was beginning to wonder where the band’s honesty lay.

The King is Dead is almost east coast Canadian in its humble folksy Celtic stylings; Meloy’s voice is coarse and holds with it a hint of an Irish accent and phrasing, although he’s not Irish and has no accent.  And yet, this collection of songs evokes earnest countryside, easy living, and a retreat to the rural corners of Meloy’s mind.  The orchestral intensity (and in my opinion, over-ambitious smoke and mirrors… sorry, guys) has given way to pedal steel and autobiographical lyrics about strength and love and life.  I was surprised at how much I loved this record, actually. It’s just really, really, really good.  Simple, elegant, pointed, classic alterna-folk music.  And alternative and folk melded together in almost any way, shape or form makes me very very happy.

Rox in the Box sounds like a re-imagined traditional Maritimes ballad; the fiddles and driving rhythm are pub-ready and seafaring; as I really connect with that sound landscape, I  was drawn in instantly.  June Hymn  is probably the most straight-up folk song on this record; it sheds its alternative shell while Meloy sings about “yellow bonnets/garland on the lawn”.  Don’t Carry It All is a great record-opener, a travelling brakeman/workingman’s song with a rousing mouth harp solo.

All in all, this is great stuff; it’s probably the least experimental of the Decemberists’ releases thus far and I’m definitely okay with that.  Sometimes it’s nice to hear straight-shooting music that ignores that pyrotechnics and attempts to break a certain mould. 

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