On “The King Is Dead” the new Decemberists album due out January, ’11, the band returns to their “roots,” putting out a straightforward acousticky country folk collection. And upon first listen it is good, for the most part. Some of the songs are flat, but some are completely great. Check out both January Hymn and June Hymn for reference.
What I find most notable about it is that the Decemberists record it is most comparable to is not a Decemberists record at all but the posthumously released Colin Meloy pre-Decemberists band Tarkio. It has acoustic guitar, accordion, twangy lap steel, harmonica(!!!!) and fiddles and endless, endless hooks. It is everything a traditional Decemberists fan would hate.
However, I would argue that returning to these supposed roots is the best thing decision Meloy could have made at this point in their career. They were following a long, annoying trajectory whose novelty ran out a while ago. On “The King is Dead” they are doing what they do best; writing good music and letting the story-lyrics stand on their own. There are elements of story, but it’s more subtle. It’s a story, but still retains some of its universal appeal and relatable-ness. Like, “This is how I feel, and I am probably a character in a story.” This is just good songwriting, and not different from what any other songwriter does, be he John Darnielle or Bruce Springsteen.
Ever since Picaresque The Decemberists have just become bloated, inflatable versions of The Decemberists I truly love, where the songs, instead of telling a story are just winking and nudging you, completely aware that they are telling a story, if that makes sense. They haven’t been subtle and have been beating you over the head with the fact that it’s a narrative. More like, “I am a character, this is my setting, here are the themes of my narrative, these are my motivations, here are the other characters, now some shit is gonna go down.” I guess I just feel like they have been trying to hard to be The Decemberists instead of just writing good music and songs in a more natural way.
Here Meloy and co return to let the songs speak for themselves and let the stories do the work. The lyrics are more in the tradition of songs like The Bachelor and the Bride or Shiny. And this fan could not be happier. Sure, it doesn’t sound like The Decemberists, but the songs are overall stronger because of this. And it’s pretty, which I like.
edit: it has now reached the point where I appreciate the album more for what it is doing than for what it is not doing. well played, Meloy.