[sic] Magazine

The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

I had a lot of reservations as I listened to ‘The King is Dead,’ the Decemberists’ ‘back to their roots’ album — the kind of countryish, simple music that they were trying to get back to is just something that usually bores me. Fortunately, it turned out to be far more intriguing than I expected, forming a golden tapestry of energetic folksy melodies.

“Here we come to a turning of the season,/witness to the arc towards the sun,” Colin Meloy announces over a bed of twangy acoustic guitar and harmonica. “Don’t carry it all, don’t carry it all/we are all our hands in holders/beneath this bold and brilliant sun/this I swear to all, this I swear to all…”

That folksy Americana sound sets the mood for the rest of the album: the speedy country-rocker ‘Calamity Song,’ the mellow bluesy ballads like ‘January Hymn,’ fiddle-driven dance tunes, cluttered twangy rockers like ‘Down By The Water,’ the gritty tight rocker ‘This Is Why We Fight’ (although the opening section made me think of the ‘Tremors’ theme song), and the languidly sunny finale ‘Dear Avery.’

It’s pretty obvious that Colin Meloy and the other Decemberists are pretty passionate fans of Americana, folk and country-inspired music. It oozes from this album. It drips from this album. ‘The King is Dead’ feels like one long homage to that kind of music, and you can’t mistake the love that is woven into these songs.

In fact, that is the biggest stumbling block in this album: it feels like a loving homage, not a natural musical expression of the Decemberists themselves. The music is a dusty, golden-hued blend of acoustic guitars, harmonicas, fiddles and other folksy instruments, and the Decemberists carry them off smoothly and skillfully. It’s good music, but it just doesn’t feel natural.

Fortunately, Colin Meloy’s nasal voice twists itself easily into a heartfelt twang, and he weaves himself through the songs as naturally as another classic folk-rock instrument. And the lyrics are filled with the sort of sentiments you find in such songs — they evoke summertime in the American countryside, with winding rivers, countrysides filled with flowers, mines and other such things.

The folk/country slant doesn’t quite show the Decemberists off at their best, but ‘The King is Dead’ is still a strong, enthusiastic homage to a simpler kind of music.