When I first heard the Decemberists, on Picaresque, I was interested by their sound and impressed by the musical execution on the album. It wasn’t an album I fell in love with though and I wasn’t tempted to buy the follow up record, The Crane Wife.
Their 2009 album, The Hazards of Love, was a different story entirely, I came to it late last year and was immediately blown away by it. A folk-rock opera with a multitude of overblown ideas and over dramatic guitars it was unlike anything else I’d heard in years. It was a record that was pretentious and unpredictable but one that encourages the listener to stick with it from start to finish to appreciate the whole picture. As such it is an album at odds with the single song buying public and one that the critics didn’t quite know what to do with.
The King is Dead is a real change of pace and style for Colin Meloy, an album that is most influenced by the radio safe country pop of REM.
Initial review reaction to The King is Dead has been split between “Boring, not as exciting as The Hazards of Love” and “Brilliant, not a pretentious mess like The Hazards of Love”. That seems to make me the winner here as I love The King is Dead and I loved The Hazards of Love as well.
The King Is Dead isn’t as exciting a record as its predecessor, and the scope is definitely more modest. It is a classic country rock album that has hints of early Wilco, mid period REM and late period Camper Van Beethoven, whilst sounding like The Decemberists throughout.
Opening track ‘Don’t Carry It All’ is one of the standout tracks and sets things up perfectly. Chunky acoustic guitar, harmonica lead off the song which includes a range of beautifully played acoustic instruments (including mandolin by Peter Buck, who guests on several tracks). Meloy’s vocals well on this kind of music and seem less affected than on previous outings. They are balanced perfectly by Gillian Welch’s backing vocals, present on most of the albums 10 tracks.
The album is well paced balancing country rock stompers, like the aforementioned ‘Don’t Carry It All’ and the spritely ‘Calamity Song’ with ballads including the pedal steel drenched ‘Rise To Me’ and the beautiful ‘June Hymn’.
Many of the lyrical themes match the more pastoral feel of the album but they cover a wide variety of themes. One of Meloy’s finest skills is making songs seem simple and poetic whilst managing to make them reveal more with each listen. Classic themes or love and loss and death are covered with real subtlety and skill.
It is true that The King Is Dead sounds like a safer option than on previous outings, but when it is executed this well that need not be a problem. The fact that The Decemberists can produce such diverse work in the space of two albums is something to treasure. It means that you have no real idea what they’ll produce next, which is both exciting and unusual.
“It is a record that is prententious and unpredictable and one that encourages the listener to stick with it from start to finish”? I’ve never heard someone call something pretentious while praising it..
My point wasn’t totally clear. I was using pretentious from the definition “making an exaggerated outward show; ostentatious.”. I think that some of the most exciting and entertaining art can come from trying something a bit overblown and ambitious. That can mean it get pretentious at times, but I think that can be the thing that seperates “artists” from “performers”. (Hmmm, maybe I’m being a bit pretentious now…)
M Slack, a good point; and I’ve never heard anyone describe REM (one of the great alternative rock bands) as ‘radio safe country pop’ – the reviewer doesn’t understand the English language or modern music. I give him 0/10.
I love REM, for a decade they were one of the best bands on the planet. (Although for the last twenty years they have struggled to demonstrate that form) They are, however, radio safe country pop. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, it is a simple fact.
I agree with my colleague, and not just because he’s my colleague.
REM have been making a fine living from playing country pop that is safe for radio play for years. I don’t think a week goes by without me hearing them on mainstream radio. What’s wrong with being radio friendly and country pop, anyway? Anyone who doesn’t accept my colleague’s credible description of REM perhaps doesn’t know their work as well as they think.
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