As we hit the midpoint of the winter, it seems a good time to look at the latest release from The Decemberists, The King Is Dead, proving to be the band's breakthrough album.
The indie-cum-Capitol recording artists holed themselves up for six weeks last spring on a farm near Portland, Oregon, to record the album. Leaving behind the high-concept erudition of previous albums, in which singer/songwriter Colin Meloy constructed song cycles with inspirations ranging from Irish mythology to Japanese folk tales to rustic shape-shifters, the Decemberists emerged from their self-imposed exile with ten radio-friendly songs that comprise the group's most conventional recording to date.
While stripped of concept album tropes, The King Is Dead nevertheless displays a common thread: that of communing with nature. "Here we come to a turning of the season/Witness to the arc towards the sun," announces the opening lines of an album that seems caught in the archetypal progression from solstice to solstice--flipping the calendar between the twin tracks "January Hymn" ("On a winter's Sunday I go/To clear away the snow/And green below/April all an ocean away") and "June Hymn," ("The thrushes bleating battle with the wrens/Disrupts my reverie again").
The album is sort of a meta-record, a document of the band's Walden-like roots rock experiment while holed up in Pendarvis Farm. For all his erudite lyricism, singer/songwriter Colin Meloy is the John Muir of the Pacific northwest music scene. The album immerses itself in the push and pull of nature, strength drawn from the American land--the antithesis of Lars von Trier's Antichrist. In the very alt-country "Rise to Me," the primal call of nature ("Big mountain, wide river/There's an ancient pull") runs parallel to a lover's plea for strength in a relationship: "To cold climes comes springtime/So let me hear you say/My love:/I am going to stand my ground/They rise to me and I'll blow them down." "Down by the Water" likewise summons "this ancient riverbed/See where all my folly's led." The song has been compared to Bruce Springsteen, probably because of the harmonica and a fleeting lyrical similarity to "The River" -- but then you might as well say The Decemberists are referencing Hank Williams. I have to figure that the heroine of this song, ("All dolled up in gabardine/The lash-flashing Leda of pier nineteen") never spent much time cruising "Thunder Road." If anything, the track is just one of the tunes on The King Is Dead that summon the ghosts of '80s R.E.M., not coincidentally because of guest work from Peter Buck on guitar. Meanwhile, the granite-mine work song "Rox in the Box" could've fit on Uncle Tupelo's March 16-20, 1992.
But forsake not your OED. Meloy and Co. still have that anachronistic vibe with language that feels almost otherworldly at times: the towering plinth, wreath of trillium, dowager empress, yellow bonnets, neck napes, a panoply of song. And most listeners will be sent to Wikipedia by the callout to Hetty Green ("Queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab") in the benign post-apocalyptic dream vision "Calamity Song."
I'm not sure if this is their best album. It doesn't reach the anthemia qualities of the best moments on The Hazards of Love. But there's not a bad song in the bunch here, and it's clear The King Is Dead captures this Aughties folk-rock band hitting a groove.