Colin Meloy and his merry band of nerdy, prog-folk hipsters, The Decemberists, return to the scene with their anticipated new release "The King Is Dead." After a dozen or so releases (in this age of EPs and re-packs it can be so hard to tell,) this Portland-rooted band has built its brand on eclecticism, poetry, geeky progressivism, nauticalism and loquaciousness.
Though never identified publicly as followers of any particular faith, they have certainly found many fans among hip Christians. Often mentioned in the same breath as known faithful neo-folkie Sufjan Stevens, or suspected believers Arcade Fire, the band presents dense music and lyrics that could mean any number of things, but somehow always ring true. Folks who appreciate depth, honesty, hope and an unflinching yet poetic eye for the somber, the scary and the dead have plenty to love about this prodigious ensemble.
The Decemberists have blazed their own musical and lyrical trail through decidedly non-commercial territory for over a decade, only to land the #1-selling album in America the week of this record’s release. Their seeming pursuit of the ultimate prog-folk masterpiece of oblique esoterica seems to have peaked with the release of their last full-length album, 2009’s "The Hazards of Love." On this full-blown rock opera, the band may have actually gotten a nosebleed from being so far over everyone’s heads. Gravity seems to have kicked in, though, as well as the fortunate evolution and progress demonstrated by most great artists, as the band members practically reinvented themselves for this taut, 10-song treat.
"The King Is Dead" pays bold tribute to the Golden Age of '80s alternative rock a la R.E.M., The Smiths, The Violent Femmes and The Waterboys. The Decemberists might almost be considered guilty of aping early R.E.M. on tracks such as “Calamity Song” and “Down by the Water,” at least until a reading of the credits reveals those Georgia legends’ own Peter Buck playing electric guitar. Fair enough. Meloy’s unique and instantly identifiable voice might be all that separates these tracks from "Murmur" outtakes.
If "The King Is Dead" is more accessible sonically it is even more so lyrically. Meloy graciously lays off most of the three-dollar words, letting fifty-centers do the heavy lifting this time around. But there is a more substantial shift than just in vocabulary. These songs have real, relevant soul to them. Like hopeful poems carved into tree trunks and tombstones at an antebellum cemetery, they capture moments and tell stories about the importance of community, the need for mercy and the drive to live full lives amidst the ruins. Consider this heartfelt plea from “Don’t Carry It All:"
So raise a glass to the turning of the season And watch it as it arcs towards the sun And you must bear your neighbor’s burden within reason And your labors will be born when all is done
Throughout this record there are many interesting signposts and observations that will hopefully strike a chord in the heart of the believer and poke at the resolute fatalism of the nihilist. The lyrics read like poetry, the melodies drive them and the wonderfully rootsy instrumentation provides the comfort of an old pair of boots. No hurdy-gurdies and bizarre medieval mythology to parse this time, just warm, welcoming and ultimately very satisfying songs about the human experience told by one very smart guy and his extremely talented compatriots. This music fan won’t be at all surprised if in 2030 there are artists paying homage to this band the way they so wryly pay tribute to their obvious influences here.
"JJT" has been chasing the thread dangling between eternal truths and temporal creative experiences for nearly three decades. He is a writer, a businessman, a father, an artist and a seeker. Read more about him at JohnJThompson.com.