A new Decemberists album is a big deal round these parts—especially when said release has been rumored to be a "change in direction" record. Even with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck on board, though, early snippets from The King is Dead
sounded more and more like a back-to-our-roots album for the literary, rustic Portland pop outfit than a true left turn. In any case, we thought that instead of taking the disc in as a whole—plenty of time for that later—we'd send ten writers (music and otherwise) to spend time with individual new Decemberists' songs (over at NPR, where the full album is currently streaming
) and give their gut reactions here. This is what we came back with.
Track 1: "Don't Carry It All"
I'm immediately reminded of Tom Petty's “Last Dance With Mary Jane” as the Decemberists' new record opens up, but that's because that tune was big when I was in middle school, and that shit sticks with you. I'm a huge believer in the power of opening and closing numbers, though, which is why I gave this tune to myself. And it's a victorious, fist-pounder of a tune that doesn't really get going until two minutes in, at which point I'm definitely ready to wave that lighter in the air. Really impressed with Meloy's vocal restraint—I'd call it an impassioned holler—and his lyrical restraint, as well. Granted, it still sounds like some long-lost 19th century poetry set to rock opera, but gone are the cheeky, quadruple-syllable rhymes that run risk of isolating non-twee listeners. For posterity, Meloy's first couple couplets are (if I'm getting the words right): “Here we come to a turning of the season/ Witness to the arc towards the sun/ The neighbor's blessed burden within reason/ Becomes a burden born of all in one.” Dunno what that means, but I'm glad the band is rocking out. CASEY JARMAN.
Track 2: "Calamity Song"
Happy New Year, everybody, the Decemberists have turned their dire gaze from the literary past to predictions of future calamity. "Had a dream, you and me in the war at the end times," blasts Colin Meloy, spinning out a vision of happy hell where California has fallen into the ocean and the birds are picking at our bones. In other words, it's the best soundtrack to all those panic-inducing cable TV Quetzalcoatl: 2012
end-of-the-world specials ever. With a driving beat and bouncy guitars, the song is plucky, in turn sharp and melodic—and most certainly affected for the better by their association with one of the dudes behind "It's the End of the World (As We Know It)." It rocks. KELLY CLARKE.
Track 3: "Rise to Me"
Colin Meloy borrows a few licks from some road-weary singer/songwriter type—Rocky Votolato, maybe?—and a really heartbreaking pedal steel, then brings in some sensuous siren for the chorus and pushes his (admittedly limited) voice just to the edge of cracking for an ode to intransigence. I love it, right up until the harmonica solo (2:37) at which point it seems like Meloy's in drag as Slobberbone's Brent Best. Hey—wouldn't the Decemberists fronted by Brent Best be an awesome band? It would. BEN WATERHOUSE.
Track 4: "Rox in the Box"
This sounds like somethin' my pappy mighta played on Sunday morning ‘fore we headed out towards the Southlands. Momma taught me the nursery rhymes—which is, matter fact, how I learned myself a'counting: “Five little weasels scratchin at yer eyes/ Smack ‘em with a rake and see who dies/ Four little weasels chompin at yer toes/ Go ‘roun the house an' spray ‘em with a hose.” So, you combine them two familial traits and these Decemberists boys are basically singing my life back to me. It weren't an easy life, but I reckon it made a man outta me. RUSTY FEATHERCAP.
Track 5: "January Hymn"
If there's one thing that tote bag-carrying NPR mothers love, it's blandly pretty acoustic ballads with the word “hymn” in the title. Never let anyone say the Decemberists don't know their audience. Released as a single last month, “January Hymn” is indeed a pretty-yet-unremarkable acoustic ballad featuring little more than guitar, faint organ and Colin Meloy singing in a vaguely Irish tenor about the winter of his discontent. Or about him being too lazy to shovel snow out of his driveway or something. MATTHEW SINGER.
Track 6: "Down By the Water"
Ha! The harmonica refrain reminds me of this song
. I haven't listened to that song since I was 12. I find it very distracting, but that's really not Colin Meloy's fault. This track has actually been out for a while, because it's the lead single, and I have fond memories of the band playing it at MFNW. I think it was better live than on record—a bit grittier and more boot-stompin'—but I really like that the band has made the ballsy move of releasing such an up-tempo, radio friendly—dare I say it...pop song!—after the mournful hour-long rock opera that was The Hazards of Love
. Gillian Welch's guest vocals pair really well with Meloy's, and contribute a lot to the song's almost Americana edge, though I wish they were a bit more prominent—I'd have loved to hear her take a "Yankee Bayonet"-esque solo.
Apologies to Casey for not commenting on the lyrics. My attention span is too short and my hearing too poor to work out what it's about. I'm sure it's a very touching and tragic tale of a sailor falling in love with a mermaid with leprosy or something, though.
I dunno why, I dunno whhyyy...damnit. RUTH BROWN.
Track 7: "All Arise!"
This one's a showcase for the Decemberists' ability to shape-shift their sound into whatever genre they dare tackle (in this case, the humble roll of vintage country and western). The stars of this particular show are Jenny Conlee, whose piano would fit well in a dusty Old West saloon, and the gorgeous laidback melody carried by the fiddle player. I can't make heads or tails of what Meloy is singing about, though. There's likely some literary source material at play here, but without some reference point, all I hear is a pseudo-love song wrapped up in a jumble of imagery. ROBERT HAM.
Track 8: "June Hymn"
"June Hymn" is no exception to the traditional Americana roots fare explored on the entirety of The King is Dead
—strongly evoking thoughts of James Taylor, or a more melodic and baroque Dylan, it would've been easy to fall into lyrical and structural cliches with this number. But it's a testament to the craftsmanship of Meloy and his band that "June Hymn" only possesses a warm familiarity that isn't quite trite. Like a country drive at sunset, it's something we all know—but a sort of beauty that never gets old. KEVIN DAVIS.
Track 9: "This is Why we Fight"
Mumford and Sons teased the Decemberists' M.O. into jock-friendly Dad-rock and got big in the process, and here Colin and company show the British lads who's boss with a rollicking anthem nearly as insipid as “Little Lion Man” and that other slab of Mumford cheese we all sing along to when no one's looking. It might sound good cuddled up to a Temper Trap song, and this is why I'm afraid to hear the rest of the album. CHRIS STAMM.
Track 10: "Dear Avery"
Pop songwriters are pulled in two opposite directions: be like Paul McCartney and try to write songs that sound like they've always existed, or be like John Lennon and write songs that sound like they were written by somebody who had to write them today or they would explode. Not that his songs sound anything like Paul McCartney's work, but I feel like Colin Meloy is always aiming for his songs to achieve canonical status, rather than blow you away with emotional directness.
"Dear Avery" is one of the more appealing songs on the new album because it tries for lyrical simplicity and delivers an emotion rather than a "Here are some fancy words for you."
And Gillian Welch is an amazing singer to have in the room, but almost distractingly so, like in an independent movie with one big star in a minor role, where you have trouble getting into the scene because you're thinking, "Oh, there's Robert DeNiro." NICK JAINA