Album Review: The King is Dead – The Decemberists

Posted: February 2, 2011 in Album Reviews, music
Tags: , , , , ,

The King is Dead - The DecemberistsI’ve been some time getting around to The Decemberists, the “indie folk rock” band from Portland Oregon that’s been going for about a decade now. I’ve had their new album, “The King is Dead”, on my iPod for a couple of weeks, and it’s grown on me with each play. Even though that makes me a bit late with this review, I’m glad I took the time to let it work on me.

On the first couple of listens, what I noticed most were the influences. “Down By the Water”, for example, sounds a bit like a moderate tempo Tom Petty country rocker and has Gillian Welch’s voice enriching the harmony. “Calamity Song”, sounds like something R.E.M. would have done back in the “Reckoning” or “Life’s Rich Pageant” days. And why wouldn’t it, with Peter Buck playing guitar on both songs, although singer songwriter Colin Meloy’s strong, earnest vocals are placed much higher up in the mix than Michael Stipe’s ever were (In other words, you can make out what Colin is singing) .

Those songs drew me into the album, giving the rest of the album time to take me deeper into it’s themes of conflict, toil, and faith. The pastoral and sporadic anachronistic images and phrasing make the lyrics seem a bit out-of-time, more 19th century than 21st. The band sounds tight and full throughout, with the usual assortment of country/Americana instrumentation slotting in to support the songs.

“Don’t Carry it All” (with Buck once again) puts us at a turning of the seasons and calls us to support each other in our struggles. The songs progress through a dream premonition of the war of the end times, then questions about whether you are going to stand your ground. “Rox in a Box” gets back to the workman’s struggle – it’s a traditional-sounding mining song seamlessly integrated with a musical quote from the “Raggle Taggle Gypsy”.

“January Hymn” is a melodic lament to a lost love, which is balanced by a more upbeat “June Hymn” later in the album, offering new hope. As the album progresses past the halfway point, the predominant folk feel gives way to more of a country rock feel, even a bit of rabble rousing. The dramatic peak, musically and lyrically, comes in the song’s penultimate track, “This is why We Fight”. “When We Die, We will die with our arms unbound/this is why/Why we fight”.

This album works on several levels. It sounds good; you can just let it play and enjoy it, and there is more beneath the surface when you want to dig deeper. Of all the music I’ve heard so far this year, this is the album I think I’m most likely to be still listening to six months from now.

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