January 18, 2011 - Capitol
“I play the harmonica on this one. There’s a stipulation—you play with Bob Dylan, you have to play with a harmonica, so we’re fitting it in somehow.” In context, this is head Decemberist Colin Meloy joshing with a Seattle festival audience last September during the introduction to new single “Down By The Water.” Out of context, this is the simple essence the Decemberists’ sixth album, The King Is Dead, which in its first track alone rhymes “season” with “reason,” makes numerous mentions of neighbors, the sun and trees (lest the authors go unrecognized, they call them “arbors”), and indulges in multi-part chorale ensembles that summon images of bearded, coke-blasted hippies enjoying a unified embrace at an Allman Brothers show. This isn’t folk music so much as it is indie pop that’s been beaten into submission by folkie clichés, a flight of fancy that’s always Crosby, Stills, And Nash but never quite Young.
If it’s the critic’s job to determine whether this sort of thing is “a comical rehashing of hackneyed artistic ideals” or “a faithful adherence to formal structures,” I hereby relinquish my pen to one more qualified, for as is customary with this band, this is a record whose appeal lies strictly in its stylistic adaptability. Like 2009’s Hazards of Love, whose multi-part “suites” and RPG-ready plotline challenged even the most devout of disciples, the songs on The King Is Dead don’t collapse under the weight of their lite-FM armor; conversely, they endure in spite of it. One way or another, the Decemberists write good songs, regardless of how they’re gift-wrapped.
Generally, the wrapping here is as sparse as you’d expect from a record billed as a “stripped down,” back-to-basics job, a tag which thankfully includes the minimizing of linguistic pyrotechnics (words like “pantaloons” and “wastrel” are nice, but in the songs as they have in the language itself, they wear their welcome) and temporarily dumping the theatrics. In places, King is little more than a Meloy solo record with embellishments, songs like “January Hymn” and “June Hymn” fluttering by like the gentle campfire ballads they evoke, bandmates and guests tastefully interjecting vocal and instrumental flourishes only where space calls for them. When the big pop numbers take over (“Calamity Song,” “Down By The Water”), their anthemic choruses are welcome respite from the gentility, which prevails in the end nevertheless.
Sure, the stupid harmonica gets annoying. But here’s an inspirational idea: Preemptively deflect accusations of your strongest cut copping R.E.M.’s “Driver 8” by getting none other than Peter Buck himself to play the opening lick. As Meloy once Tweeted: “First official day of #6 practice: made Peter Buck play my fake-R.E.M. riffs and he didn’t seem perturbed. Or litigous.” With that kind of neighborly good will in the air, it’s no wonder they’re all holding hands and singing in one voice.