The Decemberists Aren’t ‘Dead’

Courtesy of Autumn de Wilde

The Decemberists are a remarkable group. Their heavy folk influence and Pacific Northwest, nineties indie style have proved to be a winning combination. Topped off with excellent song writing, the group has made six inspired albums to date.
The group has been known to write intense music, strongly representing historical times and reaching epic proportions. The band decided to go a noticeably different route this time.

The heavy influence is all there on “The King Is Dead,” but it’s markedly different. You won’t find huge orchestral pieces or stories about 18th century Europe.

There is, however, a lot of stripped down, grass-roots – almost country-inspired – early American influence. Colin Meloy and the bunch were intent on shifting to a simpler sound and went so far as to record the album in a barn in Oregon.

Though the album is in many ways a complete 180-degree shift from the direction they were previously heading, there’s still plenty of the Decemberists to be found. Meloy still has his tender moments and uplifting choruses, just like any other of the group’s albums. Their historical context may have shifted, but the core of their songwriting is still there — and it’s just as good.

“The King Is Dead” is in every way bonfire-folk and rustic American. There are banjos, fiddles and an abundance of harmonica on the record, as well as the usual guitar, drums, bass, etc. The Decemberists still use a vast arsenal of instruments, but they manage to make their music that much simpler.

Meloy’s melodies are still recognizable and identifiable to fans. In fact, this vein of Americana music isn’t entirely foreign to the group – they have hinted to such Civil War-esque sounds in the past. Though it’s different, this album is right up their alley.

The opener, “Don’t Carry It All” lives up to its name. It’s an upbeat, liberating tune that urges you to sing along and “let the yolk fall” from your shoulders. There are roughly five or more instruments in the song, but it still feels as rustically pleasing as ever.

“Rise to Me” is a mellower song, somewhat like one of the group’s older, ultra-relaxed tunes, “Cocoon.” Although the song still has its fair share of harmonicas and wailing from Colin, it qualifies as a chill tune. And, yet again, Meloy’s melodies instantly hit home.

“January Hymn” showcases the band’s transitions. As opposed to epic musical tales dealing with family murders and standoffs inside a whale’s belly, the song is surprisingly quaint. It’s a simple little acoustic song about love and snow.
Just like its cousin, “June Hymn” is essentially an acoustic tune. It starts off like a Bob Dylan track, with guitar and harmonica, and continues on in its simple, rustic folk glory. Meloy’s songwriting sensibilities still come through (the song is a little more complex than a standard folk ballad) however, and he leaves his own decidedly Decemberist marks on the song.

The band’s non-historical influences still come through in the songs, most especially in “This Is Why We Fight,” one of the high points on the album. The REM vibe (no doubt helped along by the featuring of REM guitarist Peter Buck) is strongly felt through Meloy’s vocal melodies and Buck’s jangly guitar. The track definitely has a different vibe from some of the others, but it’s absolutely fantastic nonetheless.

More of the REM vibe can be found in “Calamity Song.” The song again seems to have some guitar work from Peter Buck, but there’s a more Americana influence than on “This Is Why We Fight.” The fast-paced acoustic guitar riffs and sweet “oohs,” combined with the REM vibe, make for a great song. Decemberists fans may be reminded of a more cheery, upbeat version of “O Valencia!”

“Rox In the Box” has a river-dancing-like vibe to it. It’s a Decemberists song through and through, with the fusion of old school folk and modern instruments. It almost sounds like it could have been placed on previous Decemberists albums, yet it does have those rough, Americana twists to the melodies.

“The King Is Dead” is yet another triumph from the Decemberists. The group has chosen to go a different direction for this one, but they’ve still left their unmistakable and fantastic marks all over it. Yet again, Colin Meloy and his band mates have brought their listeners on an intense voyage into musical eccentricities, with a skillful and familiar guiding hand. They’ve succeeded, and have once more made uniquely pleasing music. There’s no doubt this is a Decemberists record, and a fine one at that.