Plumbiferous Media

The King Is Dead - The Decemberists

Jan 9th 2011
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The King Is Dead - The DecemberistsThe Decemberists
The King Is Dead
Score: 74

Port­land indie-art-folk group The Decem­berists, now in their 11th year and more pop­u­lar than ever, will release their sixth LP, cur­rent­ly avail­able for stream­ing, lat­er this month. After 2009’s lack­lus­ter The Haz­ards of Love, it’s hard not to have some trep­i­da­tion mixed into the excite­ment for the group’s new album. For­tu­nate­ly, while The King Is Dead isn’t a mas­ter­piece on the lev­el of, say, The Crane Wife, it’s cer­tain­ly a sol­id album.

The King Is Dead is, most notice­ably, very dis­tinct­ly influ­enced by the coun­try genre. There’s a lot less going on with regards to instru­men­tals than what is usu­al for Decem­berists, and The King Is Dead is cer­tain­ly not orches­tral in nature, but that’s not to say that the instru­men­tal side of the album is by any means bad. The entire album is extreme­ly well put togeth­er, as should be expect­ed from The Decem­berists, and while there are no sweep­ing crescen­dos or waves of sound, the album works well for what it is. The album varies quite accept­ably between tracks, rang­ing from the del­i­cate gui­tar of “Jan­u­ary Hymn” to the press­ing low-end of “This Is Why We Fight,” and the end result is more than pleasing.

Real­ly, what The King Is Dead lacks are the over­ly dra­mat­ic bits that The Decem­berists record­ed so impec­ca­bly on pre­vi­ous albums. The dynam­ic lev­el stays quite con­stant through most tracks, despite its vary­ing from one to the next, and at its worst, it lends a monot­o­nous qual­i­ty to the music. It cer­tain­ly drains the album of a sig­nif­i­cant amount of emo­tion, as, in that regard, the album tends to rely sole­ly on the excel­lent­ly sung lyrics.

Col­in Meloy’s voice is in top form through­out The King Is Dead. It does­n’t hurt that, unlike on The Haz­ards of Love, it’s unbur­dened by ill-advised guest vocal­ists or seri­ous instru­men­tal mis­steps. Instead, Meloy’s voice is gen­er­al­ly left to its own devices - with great suc­cess. Meloy uses his rich, plain­tive tones to great effect, such that they fit in quite well even with the most heav­i­ly folk-themed of The King Is Dead’s tracks. The well-com­posed com­bi­na­tion of Meloy’s voice and the album’s range of instru­men­tals cer­tain­ly helps - though when they’re work­ing, Meloy’s vocals could all but stand alone.

The King Is Dead is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly more for­lorn and less cohe­sive than much of The Decem­berists’ oth­er work - it’s more imagery than it is the indi­vid­ual tales that made up The Crane Wife or the over­ar­ch­ing epic of The Haz­ards of Love. Its lev­el of lyri­cal suc­cess also, unfor­tu­nate­ly, varies. Tracks like sin­gle “Down by the Water” suc­ceed in draw­ing the vivid images Meloy is aim­ing for as he sings lines like “Sweet descen­dants rab­ble around / The pret­ty lit­tle pat­ter of a seaboard town,” while tracks like “Dear Avery,” while suc­cess­ful in their own way, don’t quite man­age to mar­shal their imagery to the same degree.

More than any­thing, it seems like The Decem­berists lack any sort of direc­tion. The band began diverg­ing from its usu­al rou­tine after The Crane Wife, pro­duc­ing the sim­ple, though occa­sion­al­ly quite pow­er­ful Always the Brides­maid series, the immense­ly con­cep­tu­al and high­ly exper­i­men­tal Haz­ards of Love, and now the restrained, coun­try-heavy King Is Dead. The Decem­berists is cer­tain­ly becom­ing increas­ing­ly unpre­dictable, and whether that is any sort of improve­ment for the band is high­ly debat­able. The King Is Dead is sig­nif­i­cant­ly more suc­cess­ful than The Haz­ards of Love, and it is def­i­nite­ly a good album, but The King Is Dead cer­tain­ly could have been sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter, giv­en the band’s ear­li­er work.

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