Sunday, January 22, 2012
The King Is Dead by The Decemberists
The King Is Dead by The Decemberists
The Decemberists have called their new album The King Is Dead. The album--a set of 10 concise, country-based songs--marks a deliberate turn towards simplicity after the band's wildly ambitious and widely acclaimed 2009 song-cycle The Hazards of Love. Produced once again by Tucker Martine, The King Is Dead features special guest appearances by Americana luminary Gillian Welch on seven tracks and legendary R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck on three tracks.
The King Is Dead showcases the ways in which The Decemberists--Colin Meloy, Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, and John Moen--sound just as glorious in simple, stripped-down compositions as they do on the elaborate structures that have defined their work for years.
Meloy points out, however, that creating straightforward, unadorned songs can be at least as hard as building complicated musical epics. "For all my talk about how complex those records were, this one may have been harder to do," he says. "It's a real challenge to make simple music, and lot of times we had to deliberately hold off and keep more space. This record is an exercise in restraint."
The album was recorded in a converted barn at Pendarvis Farm, an 80-acre estate of lush meadows, forest, and Mt. Hood views outside of Portland, and it was the concept of the barn--as recording space and as attitude--that informed the making of The King Is Dead. "We wanted that ethos," he says. "That was the color we wanted the record to have."
To Meloy, in some ways The King Is Dead also represents his own musical journey coming full circle. "Over the last eleven years or so, since I moved to Portland, I feel like I've been mining mostly English traditions for influence", he says. "I guess I've kind of come back to a lot of the more American music that got me going in the first place - R.E.M. and Camper Van Beethoven and all these bands that borrowed from more American traditions like Neil Young and the Byrds."
"Sometimes I kind of miss the epic-ness of the other albums," he continues, "but it's nice to get all of the information across in three minutes. It's like going from reading a novel to reading a bunch of short stories."
It took this album to make me admit I haven't loved The Decemberists more recent work as much as I would have liked. For all the great moments on The Hazards of Love and The Crane Wife (and there are many), there were also copious amounts of convolution and sort of awkward prog rock (see: The Island/...). The result was never strong enough to rob The Decemberists of their title as my favorite band, it just left me feeling like I should still be loving them more.
One listen of The King is Dead is all it took for me to remember why I still love this band, and it took none of the effort I had to invest in their bigger albums. The Decemberists, to me, don't write pretty music or clever lyrics as much as they conjure up a portal to somewhere far more romantic and beautifully tragic. Songs like Grace Cathedral Hill or On The Bus Mall still never fail to pull me into their worlds. This time around, things are far simpler than they ever have been, but the effect is similar. There are no long songs, nothing that will require 15 minutes of focus and a dictionary to figure out, nothing set in the late 1800s, and no tragically doomed romance. The result is a beautifully coherent album that may not pull you out of reality like their past works, but it will wrap this world in a gauzy glow for the sublime 40 minutes it sticks around.
I'm once again very excited to see where they go from here, but so grateful to have this in the meantime.