The King Is Dead
First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2011, Volume 18, #6
Written by John Metzger
Wed September 21, 2011, 05:30 AM CDT
It isnít unusual for a band to allow its ambitions to run wild, particularly when the level of success it achieves increases every time it shifts its boundaries outward. In fact, more often than not, it takes an utter failure to force an outfit to examine its wayward gestures and reconnect with its past.
For a while, The Decemberists seemed hellbent on leaping off the edge of this precipice. As it moved from The Crane Wife to The Hazards of Love, the group seemed destined to tumble to its doom, amidst a series of grandiose narratives that helped to re-establish the rock-opera oeuvre. Although both outings were skillfully constructed, it was difficult to refrain from worrying over the fact that The Decemberists was backing itself into a corner by following a path that would lead to its self-destruction. To put it bluntly, its output was becoming so absurdly complex that fewer and fewer people really cared about anything the collective had to say.
Putting a distinctive twist upon its tried-and-true formula ó which is, perhaps, an indication that the band knew it was going to find itself in a precarious predicament sooner rather than later ó The Decemberists tightened the reigns and assembled a streamlined set of songs that is surprisingly effective. Unlike the outfitís other recent offerings, The King Is Dead lacks a cohesive narrative. At the same time, though, it regains the immediacy that increasingly was being obscured by The Decemberistsí cerebral approach. Strangely enough, though, The King Is Dead feels more complete that many of the groupís endeavors.
For the record, The Decemberists hasnít really brushed its prog-rock ideals aside. Instead, the band opted to bring its melodic intonations closer to the surface of its work. At the same time, it pushed its purview beyond the British Isles, toward American shores. As a result, the Stones-y, country-blues swagger of All Arise is juxtaposed with the Neil Young-ian textures of June Hymn. Likewise, the Cat Stevens-inspired strum of January Hymn slips into Down by the Water on which The Decemberists credibly fuses Bruce Springsteen with The Jayhawks. Calamity Song is so closely aligned with R.E.M.ís canon that it isnít surprising to discover that Peter Buck contributed guitar to the arrangement, and although Laura Veirs once again makes an appearance on an album by The Decemberists, most of the harmony vocals on The King Is Dead were delivered by Gillian Welch.
Perhaps the biggest change that The Decemberists brought to The King Is Dead is that, for the first time in a long time, Colin Meloy and his pals sound like they are having a good time. With 10 concise tracks that total roughly 40 minutes of music, the effort flows as effortlessly as any of The Decemberistsí endeavors ever have. Nothing about the outing feels forced into place, and although the songs might not be connected, per se, they do complement each other.
Embracing simplicity, The Decemberists has repositioned itself in ways that undoubtedly will extend its career. While thereís no guarantee that the collective wonít revisit the complexities of its previous efforts, The King Is Dead indicates that The Decemberists now has a greater understanding of the difference between ambition and pretension.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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