The Decemberists' linear path of evolution has officially gone haywire, and somehow, that's not a bad thing. The Portland band's latest album The King Is Dead is, as frontman Colin Meloy puts it, "an exercise in restraint," abandoning previous English traditions of influence in favor of an influence lineage more in line with Neil Young and The Byrds. The band’s Americana folk music has long been laced with classical reference and an otherworldly observationalism that lends an air of regality and transcendence, interwoven within level-headed progression that conveys the spectrum of emotion without succumbing to its tides. However, on The King Is Dead, for the most part, the accordion of The Hazards of Love is traded for a harmonica, a tidal shift in atmosphere and presence, while folk-driven guitars guide us through a body of work that seems far less driven to enchant than to evoke a reaffirmation of confidence and steady ground of self.
Meloy stated early on that The King Is Dead was influenced largely by R.E.M., and safeguarded himself from damning comparisons by recruiting Peter Buck to contribute to the album's first two tracks, as well as lead single "Down By The Water". Celebratory and confidently soothing in reaffirmation, "Don't Carry it All" immediately evokes sensations of Tom Petty's "Last Dance With Mary Jane," just as "This Is Why We Fight" reminds one of early-nineties R.E.M., and for obviously good reason. But the immediate impression is one of hard-strum acoustic and eyes-on-horizon musings on the present matters at hand.
"Calamity Song" brilliantly recounts a dream after a war of the end times, with California's fault lines folding and swallowing “scores of innocents” as Buck's familiar strumming leads the drive. The galloping pace and falsetto of the song's third act so strongly recounts R.E.M. that it's immediately tempting to reach for Automatic For The People after listening. The slow-burning beauty of "Rise To Me" recounts Neil Young’s more somber early-career moments while mincing no words about destroying the oppressors who obstruct the path of unnamed progress. The harmonica after the second verse will be a detractor for casual fans who got aboard the Hazards train, as will the twanging guitars beneath it, but with a little open-mindedness the track could be a bridge to a world of gems otherwise considered inaccessible to the historically naive younger folk fans.
Chris Funk’s accordion returns on "Rox In The Box," but only as a supplement to the stomping square dance, complete with a spirited post-chorus violin & mandolin breakdown. The track is one of the more forgettable of the bunch, given the heavy reliance on stiff rhyming and melancholy tone. By contrast, driving lead single "Down By The Water," features Buck along with Gilian Welch, landing right-hook harmonies to the heart that give a powerful gravity to the direct descendant of R.E.M.’s "The One I Love".
Two companion ballads, "January Hymn" and "June Hymn," are both gentle, humble compositions that evoke an aching beauty, particularly in the breezy flourish of heartsleeve reflective melodies. The album closes strong with two tracks Meloy has performed acoustically live for the past two years. The captivating “This Is Why We Fight” is the most modern direction the album sets off in, a radio-ready alt-rock single that walks a path of dark certainty: "Come the war / Come the avarice… Come the reek of bones / Come attrition / Come hell…" The guitars gallop along steadily under words that find airy clearings in the choruses, but the harmonica counters with a chilling undertone.
There is no sprawling conceptual arc here, no guest vocalists playing countering roles in a Victorian narrative - they simply don't belong on an album that, grand as it may be, finds Colin Meloy and company scaling back the ambition of grant musical architecture for sound-foundation folk-driven rock hymns. The brilliance of The Decemberists, the true beauty of the band lies in the fact that they can be just as powerfully captivating on a comparatively understated album as on the hugely ambitious previous effort.
What began as a delightfully weird, intimidatingly proficient indie band initially yielded three albums of savant-like folk beauty, convincing beta-level hipsters-to-be and folk aficionados that there was a formidable new player on the field. Beautiful prog-folk was on the menu for 2006's beautifully reflective The Crane Wife, and 2009's The Hazards of Love was a sprawling and deeply underappreciated masterpiece that found The Decemberists at their pinnacle of artistic honing and ambition. This latest offering, musical minimalism at its finest in an age of bigger, louder, faster, now, is a gorgeous departure from the band's self-imposed trajectory to grandiosity, and a beautiful musical beginning to 2011.
CraveOnline Rating: 8 out of 10