[FOREFATHERS OF TWEE] Upon the release of the Decemberists' The King Is Dead, we ran 10 writers' takes on the album's 10 songs. The idea was to see the full range of responses, from hatred to fawning adulation, that the folk-pop outfit—perhaps Portland's most divisive band—generally elicits.
Instead, most of our writers reacted with relatively uniform lukewarm praise. That's because, unlike rock opera The Hazards of Love before it, The King Is Dead plays things safe. It's the album the band should have made two albums ago—a stylistic stepping stone that does away with some of frontman Colin Meloy's showier lyrical indulgences and blurs the ensemble cast of fine Portland musicians behind him into a warm and fuzzy musical quilt. Not a dumbing down, exactly, but certainly a dialing down of all the things that made the haters hate the Decemberists with such passion.
That doesn't mean the band has lost ambition. While The King Is Dead has been widely hailed as a "return to form," it's more a return to a palatable early-'90s alt-pop era that was derailed by the splintering tastes of the American consumer—think of the Replacements at the height of their commercial appeal or (more obviously given Peter Buck's widely publicized involvement in the record's production) Automatic For the People-era R.E.M. These influences haven't been easy to spot in the Decemberists' early records, which had more in common with the Pogues and Neutral Milk Hotel than with '80s jangle-pop—but they have long been identified as some of Meloy's influences (shit, he wrote a book about the Replacements' Let It Be), and it's refreshing to hear Meloy and company wear those influences on their collective sleeve here.
In finding their place in America's pop lineage, the Decemberists haven't returned to form so much as they've realized their early potential: It turns out there's a whole country—a legion of bookish Decemberists die-hards among them—ready to propel a savvy collection of acoustic-guitar-led radio rock to the top of the charts.
And then there are the haters—those who found something disingenuous about Meloy's nasal balladeering from the start and those locals for whom the Decemberists are, like zoobombers and baristas, somehow an inaccurate and over-hyped representation of the Portland they know and love.
For those of us in the lukewarm middle, this album is largely a step in the right direction. "Calamity Song" is a fine jangle-pop cut with just the right balance of Meloy's descriptive, silly-syllabic lyricism (he describes California slipping into the sea) and the band's in-pocket groove. "Rise To Me" and "Dear Avery" are easily two of the finest, most authentic Decemberists slow-burners to date.
Though Meloy's sharp, over-enunciated couplets ("Once upon it/ yellow bonnet" being my least favorite) and occasionally challenging vocabulary words are hung out to dry against the newly toned-down instrumentation, his strokes of genius—see "January Hymn," which reminds of Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill"—are presented cleanly and respectfully. Free of the clutter of pan flute or xylophone or whatever other twee shit might have once spoiled a fine tune.
Only two songs—the needling "Rox in the Box" and the Christian-radio-sounding "This Is Why We Fight"—in the collection prove cringe-worthy. Scattered among the other eight tracks are plenty of examples of a hometown band that made good without making overt concessions. It's hard not to be proud of them for that.
SEE IT: The Decemberists play Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Saturday, Feb. 19. $39.50. 8 pm. All ages.