After what was an absolute blowout of a musical year, with aughts stalwarts like Kanye West and Laura Veirs pulling out some of their greatest work to face a new and promising decade, we begin 2011 with an album that will be noted as a coming down of sorts from one of the more recognizable groups of 2000’s indie rock. Known for mercilessly erudite and stringent pop, The Decemberists have decided to fall back on the basics after the slightly tepid response from critics for their 2009 rock opera, The Hazards of Love. The result is an album that finds its musical fancy in what can be holistically considered folk, but one that has a foot in many of its surrounding sounds.
The King Is Dead sounds like the genre-flexing of a group of professionals that have assured talents and even more assured musical vocabulary. All the signifiers are there – the steel guitar, the violin, the banjo – and not once on The King Is Dead do you question that the band hasn’t planned nearly every aspect of the record you’re hearing. But, with that complete control, one can worry that the group is far too calculating with their precision, not leaving enough space for their songs to grow, which is an especially grave concern when working with a genre as loose as folk. This quality does hinder The King Is Dead, but not in the way you’d think. The band does very little to strangle their songs of appeal. In fact, this is one of a very few albums in which I cannot pick out one great fault. But this perfection is what, ultimately, hinders The King Is Dead; the album is impenetrably solid, but never does it surprise or move you. Sure, you might be humming some of its melodies the day after you hear them, but I challenge anyone to still care much about this album in a few months’ time. The band may have succeeded in releasing an album that maintains alarmingly consistent quality equilibrium, but its lack of risks can be frustrating.
The King Is Dead, is not a homogonous album, though. When The Decemberists aren’t amicably folking it up, they’re an R.E.M. cover band as in “Down By the River” (It’s the guitar the gives it away, and, lo and behold, R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck plays on this and two other tracks). The times when The King Is Dead goes from a B+ to, let’s say, a B++, are when the band gets a little bit dark. The sinister harmonica screech of “This Is Why We Fight” and the tender strumming of “Dear Avery” add a sinister aspect to the album in its final fifth. Colin Meloy’s best lyric on the album is hilariously tossed off in the beginning of “Calamity Song” (“And I believe / California succumbed to the fault line / We heaved relief / As scores of innocents died”).
The only part of the album that had me doing a legitimate double-take, though, was at the end of “This Is Why We Fight”, when the sound of Petra Haden emoting over strummed guitar and the pitter-patter of raindrops permeates the mix for the song’s final minute. It may not be The King Is Dead’s best moment, but it is definitely the most raw; a surprise on an album that could have used more of them. Which is, in itself, a surprise considering the group’s reputation for avid quirkiness. I guess after an arguable pitfall, the group put comfort first for their newest, which, practically, is a valid choice to make. I just hope, with The King Is Dead, that The Decemberists will feel confident enough to move on to making more brainy prog-pop. The album’s replete with pretty little ditties, but I see The King is Dead as a forgettable stopgap between The Crane Wife and whatever comes next from the group more than anything else.