Über-literacy has always had a place in indie-rock, but lately it’s been really breaking through to the mainstream – The Suburbs (QRO review) just won Album of the Year at The Grammys, and The Decemberists have been successful on major label Capitol, first with their Capitol debut The Crane Wife (a faux-fight with Stephen Colbert over the ‘make your own video’ green screen contest didn’t hurt…), then with 2009’s folk-rock opera-album The Hazards of Love (QRO review). Colin Meloy & co. couldn’t match the nineteenth century odyssey that was Hazards, so they’ve followed up by borrowing from probably the greatest alternative music band to successfully break through to the majors, R.E.M. (QRO album review) on The King Is Dead.
R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck even played on three pieces on The King, and nowhere is the influence more acute that at the start of “Calamity Song”, whose opening guitar notes sound just like “7 chinEse Bros.” from Reckoning (QRO deluxe edition review), but throughout the record The Decemberists literate twenty-first century indie-country meets R.E.M. literate alt-eighties indie-country, in a more rockin’ collection of songs than Hazards. R.E.M. had a way of doing indie-country in their early, I.R.S. years that few have really matched (including later R.E.M….), but The Decemberists come as close as anyone, including the backwoods ‘jamboree with The Devil’ “Rox In the Box”, the evocative “This Is Why We Fight”, and sad & powerful first single “Down By the Water” (another song featuring Buck).
That all being said, King is a little less special of a record from a very special band. The twang to “Rise To Me”, stripped heartbreak to “January Hymn”, and hoe-down that is “All Arise!” are all good, but have been heard before and don’t stand out. After the ambition that was The Hazards of Love, The Decemberists have traded a little of that in for enjoyability – though it’s not a bad trade-off by any means. What’s more, their indie-country isn’t one-note, at least feels original (after acknowledging the R.E.M. connection), and can be done both upbeat and downcast.
The King Is Dead is the record that The Decemberists should make after The Hazards of Love. After proving their musical skill beyond on doubt on the last one, the band has made maybe their most enjoyable record to-date. And there’s precious few bands that can do both this well (though one other does come to mind…).
MP3 Stream: “This Is Why We Fight”