The King is Dead The King is Dead

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The Decemberists The DecemberistsThe King is Dead

8.3 / 10

The Decemberists  The King is Dead

ROUGH TRADE

Time deforms everything, even sayings. Nowadays, if you get together everybody who says out loud “The King is dead… Long live the King,” the most likely thing is that you’ll end up with two main sectors. On one hand, you’ll have those who meant: “Hell, the king was great. Let him live a long life!” But there will also be a group that meant something totally different: “The embers of the old king are dead, so long live the new king! After all, he’s also the king, isn’t he?” It’s hard to know exactly which of these two options The Decemberists are referring to with the so very The Smiths title that they have chosen for their sixth album. But knowing Colin Meloy’s high-class literary interests, the most natural thing is to choose the second option, which is, after all, the original. The problem (or not) is that there is no dead king here: everything in “The King Is Dead” had already been prefigured in the band’s previous works, whether through a relationship of direct kinship or of reaction against it.

“The Hazards of Love” (Capitol, 2009) implied the peak of that trend towards conceptualism that The Decemberists had shown since their first album— a spirit of tavern operetta full of Melville sailors addicted to “The Old Man and the Sea” flew over even the accessible and delicious “Picaresque” (Kill Rock Stars, 2005). But what was the light, graceful shadow of a bird at a port in that album, soon fattened up and mutated into a sort of prehistoric pterodactyl that obviously increased the fat around the waist in “The Crane Wife” (Capitol, 2006) and which, in the aforementioned “The Hazards of Love”, ended up weighing so much that it couldn’t even fly. This is what happens when the concept beats out the music. And this is what Meloy and company seem to have learned, since “The King Is Dead” reveals itself from the very first second as a return to origins, a powerful desire to turn back the counter to zero, let go of conceptual baggage, and to stick your bare feet into a river where echoes of the drunken songs of the fortune hunters of the Gold Rush can still be heard.

This focus on a legendary period in the history of the United States is not gratuitous: “The King Is Dead” sounds powerfully American. At times, it might seem that Meloy is a little like a junky about to give in to the temptation of the concept: those lyrics where he comes out once in awhile with cultured phrases that don’t suit the elegantly redneck melodies: the theatrical call to arms of “All Arise!” and “This Is Why We Fight”, even the fact that the “January Hymn” of the heart of the album ends up deriving into the “June Hymn” that shores up the final stretch. But luckily these are just flashes that only remind us that however much this might be the band’s Americana album, The Decemberists are still The Decemberists. Which means that yes, they have their feet stuck up to their ankles in a stream in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, but from the knees up, they are spotlessly dressed in a dandy style that is entirely at odds with the American south.

In this way, “The King Is Dead” grabs Americana by the lapels of its threadbare jacket and gives it a multi-instrumental work-over, the kind that the group likes so much (with heavy use of the harmonica and the acoustic guitar, but without setting aside its traditional accordion), getting a final that applies the colourful veneer of “Gone with the Wind” to “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. And let me say for the record that this is not at all a negative thing. The idyllic view of Americana that The Decemberists give off has a lot to do with Neil Young and Gram Parsons, but also with that slightly post-modern, but heavily frontier vision presented so well by Calexico or Elvis Perkins. It also builds bridges towards roots (perfectly represented by the collaboration of Gillian Welch) and even towards the “Reckoning” (A&M, 1984) period of R.E.M. (not in vain does Peter Buck put his instrumentation at their service in various songs). Nevertheless, the referential coordinates are totally unnecessary to talk about the compositions of “The King Is Dead”, as the album as a whole is still full of purely Decembrist moments, whether they get deliberately and deliciously uncouth, like in “Calamity Song” (with that howling and drum that call you to a spring party on the porch of a filthy shack in Louisiana); when they proclaim themselves to be the band to cheer up the troops in the American Civil War, in the sublime “This is Why We Fight” (one of the highest-flying acts of the album: the difficult simplicity of the past-perfect-tense chorus); when they compose like somebody trotting on horseback over the badlands, whether in “Don’t Carry It All” or “Down by the Water”; and even when they decide to make a stop along the way and watch how the sun sets while heating their hands in front of a precarious fire, a feeling that is palpable in the two aforementioned songs, especially the June one.

The Decemberists must be aware (as is anyone who has listened to the album more than three times), that “The King is Dead” is their best album since “Picaresque”: this is why they have put out a super-special edition that comes with a book of all the Polaroids that Autumn De Wilde took to document the process of the gestation and recording of the album (and it even includes the original of one of those photos). Something that adds to the final experience of pleasure, but which isn’t indispensable for an album that shows us that this literary music (or literature set to music) may be rambling and opaque at times, but at other times it is as accessible and restful as looking at the blue sky on an April morning while your lover is whispering verses into your ear. And, in fact, we enjoy it a lot more when it is this way. So, it’s time to hum: the King hasn’t died, he’s just taken off his heavy saddlebags. Long live the King!

Raül De Tena

The Decemberists - Down by the water{youtube width="100%" height="25"}1c76R6DxiwQ{/youtube}

The Decemberists - January Hymn{youtube width="100%" height="25"}XqDlTKqxu2w{/youtube}

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