After indulging in a prog-rock period for its past couple of albums, indie veterans The Decemberists return to folk-country sensibilities on The King is Dead, a pleasant and capably performed album that’s too middle-of-the-road to gain the band many new fans.
When The Crane Wife dropped in 2006, the magic of Colin Meloy’s pretty, warbling voice singing sea shanties and tales of strife from a hundred years ago was enough to charm listeners everywhere. But as the band has aged its music has lost some of its spunk, settling into a moderately enjoyable but fatigued groove.
“Don’t Carry it All” opens the album with a blaring harmonica that pleasantly reminds of Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” but it doesn’t maintain the hearty attitude of its beginning notes. The song disappointingly swings straight into a straightforward and unchanging melody that delivers poetic lines like, “We are all our hands and holders/Beneath this bold and brilliant sun,” in such a totally tame and dull manner that the words end up losing any potential strength or effect.
And even though the album’s finely-detailed instrumentation should be acknowledged—a harmonious blend of indie rock and different styles of roots music attained through a skilled balance of acoustic guitar, accordion and harmonica—The Decemberists’ failure to clothe their often gritty lyrics in fitting musical dress leaves the record sounding timid.
The King Is Dead‘s best moment happens on its next to last track, “This Is How We Fight.” The whole cut is solid, bringing a freshness to the end of the album with pretty lines like, “When we die/We will die with our arms unbound,” that flow easily and naturally between nicely-offset moments of clean guitar strumming and country twang. The real magic, though, comes after a pause, when a sweet melody arises for a much too short 30 seconds. The pared down, lo-fi bit contains no bells or whistles, but it lends the song a rustic and bare-bones vibe that places it squarely in the tradition of today’s best folk music.
Had The Decemberists expanded on that brief and fluttering inspiration, the group might have succeeded in adding new layer of interest to its sound that would have made this album really something worth hearing. As it is, though, The King Is Deadis too smooth, too bland, and frankly boring.
The King Is Dead may impress the 14-year-old romantics, the budding bookworms and the sunny-eyed, middle-aged ladies among us, but it’s likely to underwhelm anyone who didn’t learn of the band through a feature on NPR.