The Decemberists are nerds. What else to call a band that bases albums on Irish myths and Japanese folk tales, writes songs about author Myla Goldberg and CIA spy Valerie Plame, and dishes out more vocabulary than the Princeton Review? Their first album alone includes the words: wastrel, parapet, indolent, balustrade, legionnaire, camisole, and maidenhead. And their last album, a fantasy rock opera, includes shape-shifting creatures, magic spells, and infanticide, all set against the backdrop of the taiga, a.k.a. the boreal forest, which as everyone knows, is the world’s largest terrestrial biome. Indeed.
While still nerdy, their new album, The King is Dead, marks a hard swing from eclectic to accessible, and a shift from indie to Americana. The 10 songs –now streaming on NPR’s First Listen— include rock anthems, country tearjerkers, and folk ballads, as well as a Celtic foot-stomper and a honky tonk blues. While The Decemberists have often channeled past centuries, their sixth record recalls the last 50 years of troubadours, from Bob Dylan and Neil Young to Ryan Adams and Bright Eyes
The title of the new record pays homage to The Queen is Dead, the classic 1986 album by The Smiths, a fitting allusion. Both bands mix mirth and melancholy and write pop songs with literary lyrics. Both Morrissey and Colin Meloy have fey voices that tend to evoke either worship or disgust (N.B. Moz is actually British; Meloy only pretends to be). And the interplay on The King is Dead between acoustic and electric guitars recalls the work of The Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr.
Still, The King is Dead owes less to 80’s Brit Pop than to American roots music, and less to Manchester than to Nashville. from the opening harmonica swoop to the pedal steel swoon that ends the album. While the music still centers on Meloy’s voice and acoustic guitar, there’s an added level of twang, thanks to layers of harmonica, accordion, and fiddle. The sound gets further countrified by guest vocalist Gillian Welch, whose presence softens Meloy’s nasal bleat, as Becky Stark and Shara Wordon did on The Hazards of Love. And guest guitarist Peter Buck adds the trebly arpeggios that shaped the sound of R.E.M. (“Down By the Water” is a modern-day version of “The One I Love“)
The King is Dead has no central narrative, a reversal from the band’s last two concept albums, The Crane Wife (2006) and The Hazards of Love (2009). Instead, The Decemberists have returned to the self-contained songs from their first three records. Tunes like the bluesy “All Arise!” and the two-beat “Rox in the Box”—with their basic chord changes and sing-along choruses—might even be played on an acoustic guitar beside a campfire or at an urban party.
For the most part, Meloy restrains his penchant for word play, historical allusions, and narrative flights of fantasy. Instead, he plays it straight and hits archetypal themes, with songs of love (“Rise to Me”), war (“This is Why We Fight”), and a pair of achy acoustic odes to the seasons (“January Hymn” and “July Hymn”). Nature also gets its due in the album cover art, an orange sky above a coniferous forest, which may or may not be a taiga.
Still, the king is not quite dead. Meloy still weaves words like ‘panoply,’ ‘barony’ and ‘Andalusian’ into his songs. “This is Why We Fight” employs an archaic syntax (“Come the war/Come the avarice/Come the war/Come hell”). And in “Calamity Song,” the lyric “The age of the chewable Ambien tab” alludes to Infinite Jest, the mammoth novel by postmodern prince David Foster Wallace. Checkmate.
While The King is Dead may win The Decemberists more mainstream approval, the album still speaks to a certain demographic: the music fan who lives in Brooklyn, the band’s native Portland, or any Frontier city with microbreweries, commuter cyclists, and poetry readings. Regardless, the band seems determined to broaden their appeal. Meloy is now considering a Broadway show based on the music of The Decemberists. Take that, Green Day.
Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He lives in Brooklyn and is a Septemberist.