Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Decemberists: The King is Dead

Now that they've been making albums for ten years, it doesn't look like a completely consistent Decemberists album, one that's just plain good from start to finish, is ever going to be in the cards.  Look at literally any of their six full-length albums (and many of their EPs and other assorted releases), and you'll see that half to two thirds of it is amazing, bordering on brilliant, and the remainder is... not.  Sometimes it tries too hard and becomes the indie cliche that the Decemberists are often accused of being.  Sometimes it doesn't try hard enough, and what would otherwise be a halfway decent track is lost to much better material to either side of it.  And sometimes it's just boring.

The weird thing about the Decemberists is that however they dress their music up, it turns out this same way.  Whether they're set in medieval Japan or Arthurian England, every Decemberists album follows the pattern.  So forget the "blah blah blah REM" hype, and lay the "hey look, this album was recorded in a barn, so it is rustic" to rest.  It's still a Decemberists record.  It's still indie pop with strong folk influences and a pinch of hard rock to make it interesting.  It still features Colin Meloy using words that you didn't know existed.  And it still features six or seven outstanding tracks and a handful of entirely forgettable ones.

That's not to say that The King Is Dead is the same album as any of the Decemberists' past releases--least of all The Hazards of Love.  Where Hazards was high-concept rock opera (and really cool, though not everyone's cup of tea), King is toned down a bit.  The only major "theme" on this album, if one exists at all, is the passage of time: seasons turn, calamities happen, we reminisce, we fight in wars... and everything goes on.  But the Decemberists are rarely ones to make a statement ("16 Military Wives" being possibly the sole exception).  They're content to sing songs, and that's what's great about them.

What works on King?  For starters, everything involving that "turn of the seasons" motif: "Don't Carry It All" is an upbeat way to start the album, a sincere paean to lending a helping hand.  "January Hymn" has an austere beauty that executes Fleet Foxes' concept better than Fleet Foxes can, and "June Hymn" is as unpretentious an indie-pop tune you'll ever find, reveling in some simplicity that evokes some almost-real Springville Hill.

My favorite track, strangely, is "Rox in the Box."  It has an irritating title, and the first two lines of it sound like they should be from a Charles Barkley commercial for Taco Bell, but it evolves into a complex tune with layers of bluegrass and old-style American folk that very few bands could pull off.  "All Arise!" is another stylistic experiment, mixing in zydeco harmonica, accordion, and fiddle--and like "Rox," it borrows heavily from the aesthetic of the Decemberists' so-called side project, Black Prairie.  And "Down By the Water" is a fine first single; what it lacks in usual Decemberists flamboyance, it makes up for with Gillian Welch's vocal performance.  (Welch is featured on around half of the album's tracks, but her talents are used most effectively in "Water".)

King's biggest problem is that its pacing is just a bit askew.  It's not a long album, weighing in at under 40 minutes, and every time it finishes, I want there to be more--which speaks highly for the album.  Still, it drags in parts: both "Rise to Me" and "Dear Avery" are nearly five minutes long, and neither is interesting enough to warrant that much length.  "Dear Avery" in particular is a curious, unexpectedly low-key end to the album.  It's not quite as dull as "Of Angels and Angles," the mind-numbingly emo finale to 2005's Picaresque, but it doesn't build to any sort of climax that gets me excited about the last eight minutes of the album.

But it's the Decemberists, after all, and we can't expect every single track to be a winner.  Six or seven brilliant out of ten is nothing to sneeze at.

Currently listening: "Apologies", Christie DuPree

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