The first Decemberists album I listened to was 2009’s rock opera The Hazards of Love. With its songs about fawns transforming into princes, pregnancy, forest queens, and drowning, I didn’t expect to be as into it as I was. It was complicated, obtuse, and kind of awesome. Mostly, it felt like the kind of album that simply isn’t made anymore. In an age of singles and torrents, it feels impossibly old-fashioned to create what amounted to a 55-minute song with track divisions thrown in. As I dug into their discography, I discovered that Hazards is something of a logical conclusion to their entire career. They’ve always flirted with prog rock and unrealistically long song suites, and Colin Meloy’s love of florid language and violent imagery creates a bizarre alternate world where music took its main inspiration from lit majors.
So when I got around to listening to 2011’s The King is Dead, I almost immediately disliked it. It’s just ten unconnected songs. The lyrics do not embrace character and narrative in nearly the same way. Instead of song suites we get what essentially sounds like a crossover attempt. At the very least, it feels like a response to The Hazards of Love, in the same way that Metallica responded to …And Justice For All… with their self-titled album. But perhaps strangest of all is the music, which no long embraces prog rock, but instead leans towards American roots music and country, with just a little touch of a Celtic lilt. To someone who is ready for a three-part sequel to The Crane Wife, disappointment is to be expected. I ended up buying the album on the cheap, and it sat in my car on a burnt CD in a pile with everything else.
But a funny thing happened as it sat in my car. It made it into the music rotation partially because it seemed to appeal to my wife, and partially because a friend insisted it was terrific. After a few weeks, I realized something curious: I knew pretty much all of the lyrics. I found myself whistling “Calamity Song” when I was by myself. My two-year-old son sang along to the “yellow bonnet” lyric in “June Hymn.” My wife an I were echoing the harmonies and singing them together. Without realizing it, it had quietly become one of my favorite albums.
All of the things I said before are true. It sheds a lot of what made me like The Decemberists in the first place. It was no longer melodramatic and wordy. It played more like a country album than anything else. But it just happens to be the best series of melodies that they have ever written. There’s the opening surge of “Don’t Carry It All,” the apocolyptic “Calamity Song,” the seething menace of “Rox in the Box,” and the jolly stomp of “All Arise.” There frankly isn’t a bum song in the bunch, which is a first for this band. Every track is as long as it needs to be, and nothing feels half-baked or incomplete.
And if it sands away a lot of what I liked about the Decemberists (to great effect, I should add), it also does away with a lot of their worst habits. Gone is their tendency towards cutesy instrumentation, to engage in obtuse stories, and to generally be just a little too smarty-pants for their own good. It feels like a debut album in a way, one of those wonderful ones that feels like a statement of purpose. I would be disappointed if they never returned to the 18-minute epics, but I’m so glad we have The King is Dead to show the great pleasures in straightforward music.