For their past couple of albums, Portland, Oregon’s Decemberists have been telling their stories in epic fashion. 2009’s The Hazard’s Of Love was a full-blown folk-rock opera, while 2006’s The Crane Wife, almost was.
This time around, the band is concentrating on individual songs, although The King Is Dead seems to have a connecting thematic thread centred around nature and the apocalypse. In addition to the core quartet, the band is augmented by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck on three tracks and vocalist Gillian Welch on most of them. The opening track, Don’t Carry It All immediately brings to mind Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers with a touch of Dylan and The Band. Not a bad thing, but not particularly original, either. Welch and musical partner David Rawlings chime in with some gorgeous backing vocals. Buck’s R.E.M. influence really comes to the fore on Calamity Song and Down By The Water, which sounds very much like The One I Love. The song also brings to mind Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, and as such, is a classic rocker’s dream. But, as much as I enjoyed the tunes, I couldn’t help feeling a bit guilty, since they are so derivative.
Elsewhere, the band breaks out the fiddles and pedal steel guitars for a more rustic vibe on tunes like January Hymn and All Arise! Singer/guitarist Colin Meloy’s lyrics are quite poetic, although his use of archaic words like “panoply” and “barony” feel a bit pretentious.
Like The Low Anthem, The Decemberists sound like a band who wish they were born in another time…perhaps 300 years ago. Still, there are enough stirring melodies, thoughtful lyrics and heartfelt performances here to recommend it.
Listen here to Down By The Water from The King Is Dead: