Release Date: 01/18/11
The idea of "redefining" your image or becoming interested in different genres and instruments has been a staple of pop ever since The Beatle's Sgt. Pepper's and Radiohead's Kid A. Last we heard from the indie intellectuals, they were making the over-the-top, but convincing concept album The Hazards of Love. The King is Dead is the band's next stop on their endless journey of self-discovery that takes them back a bit to their earlier albums. In contrast to their previously European folk-informed album, The King is Dead is their take on American influences via slide guitars, harmonicas, fiddles and square-dance harmonies. Also in intentional contrast, while The Hazards of Love was led by a rock opera concept and wordy lyrical devices, here The Decemberists stand in sharp contrast. The King is Dead features the shorter songs, somewhat simpler lyrics, and more poppy arrangements of their earlier albums.
Opening with what might be the strongest track on the album, "Don't Carry It All", lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy sings an infectiously simple melody over an Arcade Fire-esque beat about the joys and pains of bearing one another's burdens. Meloy also proclaims a new "turning of the season" and is a hopeful opener in what could have been a refreshing return to simpler roots for The Decemberists.
Unfortunately, despite their most earnest attempts to convince you that they are invested in their new alt-country inspirations, their return to shorter songs and simpler ideas feels a bit too forced to be sincere. And its not that they aren't trying. Even enlisting some help to convince us of their new style, Americana veteran Gillian Welch joins the crew for most of the album, providing some harmonies that add some much needed variety to Meloy's dominating crooning. However, Welch, who has been received some authenticity-related criticism herself, can't save the album from feeling like its merely going through the motions. It seems that instead of creating a style change that might inspire new songwriting muses or creative genre-blending, The King is Dead seems to be held back by its new aesthetics. While the album starts memorably with the upbeat indie-folk sound of "Calamity Song" and the nice moments of tenderness in "Rise To Me", the songs following end up sounding drab, overly familiar, and largely forgettable.
For the most part, Meloy seems to have either lost or given up the wide-eyed melodies of Picaresque and The Crane Wife that gave his music life and character. Hearing the nonsensical lyrics in the "rock" song of the album, "This Why We Fight", even the songwriting seems to lack the consistency that was once so such a vital weapon in The Decemberists' arsenal. Ultimately, while I don't usually buy into criticizing artists for a lack of authenticity, The King is Dead's lack of memorable ideas fails to convince me that The Decemberists belong in such a genre at all. The end result is an album that is fine enough for a listen through, but not quite enough to live up to the band's big name.
The Decemberists - Don't Carry It All