If there’s anything we might learn from music trends in the past ten years, it’s that concept is cool. And since 2002, The Decemberists have defined what a concept album should be, earning praise along the way for historic library-lyrics and quirky instrumentals that have had indie rock fans all atwitter in their coffee shops.
Their 2009 release, The Hazards of Love, arrived as yet another conceptualized package of songs that focused on a woman’s strange and oddly sexual encounters as she journeys through a forest. It was an ambitious project that was well received by both critics and fans as it carried lead singer Colin Meloy’s ballads of vocals along with definitively Decemberists opera instrumentals.
The King Is Dead, the latest release from The Decemberists, breaks character for the first time. Gone is the concept. Gone is the opera. Gone are the folklore and the seldom-told tales wrapped in Meloy’s clever prose. The King Is Dead may as well be labeled“Decemberists Lite” as, though it’s quite recognizably Meloy and his merry men, they’ve watered down all that’s defined them.
Their sixth studio record has a decidedly country tone, one that often feels forced and somewhat generic. While former albums featured thick and heavy guitars that drove eccentric melodies from playful to morose, The King Is Dead comes off as half-assed and empty Americana; lacking the poetic verse and catchy riffs we’ve come to expect.
“The Calamity Song” is an upbeat track that, at best, could be described as radio country. It rings of The Crane Wife’s “O, Valencia” minus the eloquence and laden with country twang. The track evokes a “stomp your hands, clap your feet” feel that fails to pique the listener’s interest at any point throughout.
The album’s first single, “Down By The Water”, features accompaniment from Peter Buck, lead guitarist for R.E.M., the band which served as a source of Meloy’s inspiration for both the track and the album. With harmonica riffs and country guitars reminiscent of “Heart of Gold”, Meloy’s folksy crescendos feel again out of place and forced to the style of the album.
The only track that seems to work in this marriage of rural and indie rock is “Rox In The Box”, where we get a nostalgic taste of the melancholy arrangements and bouncy darkness that we heard in “Leslie Anne Levine” back in 2002.
The Decemberists have shown a chip in their armor with The King Is Dead, which will undoubtedly disappoint fans looking for the quality and depth of previous albums. Pastoral is a look ill-suited to these concept kings.
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