What’s the definition of a great album? Is it one that pushes the boundaries of musical expression into completely uncharted territory like Kid A? Is it an album that is the pinnacle of its genre or subgenre of music like The Blueprint for early 2000’s East Coast hip-hop or Is This It for the New York garage revival? Does it simply mean an album that not only has few if any bad tracks but consists almost entirely of spectacular tracks which all stick with you at album’s end rather than just one or two singles such as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy or Florence + the Machine’s Lungs? Why does it have to be just one of those answers (as some of the more Pitchfork leaning among us will insist that only the first answer can be true)? There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that The Decemberist’s 2011 LP, The King Is Dead, will go down as one of the most mature and fully realized albums in their already impressive library of music. Yet, this isn’t a dramatic leap forward in the quality or tone of their music. At its core, this is still the nautically obsessed and almost pretentiously literate band legions of fans have adored over the years. No new sonic landscape is explored as the album is a straight-forward (but always entertaining) fusion of American folk rock (particularly The Band whose influence can be heard in virtually every track) and the 80’s southern indie rock of R.E.M. With so much of indie rock obsessed with re-capturing the sound of British rock/punk or early surf pop, a band so determined to update southern folk and country rock makes The King Is Dead one of the most classically American sounding albums in decades and one of the best albums of 2011.
After a decade of indie bands that have drowned out their own vocals in walls of noise and echoing reverb that makes it virtually impossible to understand what 95% of indie music is about (at least lyrically), you can’t begin to state how refreshing it is to have a band that takes the time to clearly enunciate all of their words and put such emphasis on writing such engaging and intellectual lyrics. As someone who cut his teeth on the poetic lyricism of Bob Dylan, Colin Meloy’s ability to craft such memorable lyrics that don’t draw from the cliche topics of love and politics is so invigorating. His songwriting is sprinkled with countless literary allusions, though my favorite is this direct reference to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (“On the road, it’s well advised that you follow your own bag in the year of the chewable ambien tab”). Still don’t know why that tickles my lit nerd pleasure center so thoroughly, but it does. Fans of The Decemberists know that the ocean and ships are a recurring theme in Meloy’s work, and it’s readily apparent on tracks as varied as “Don’t Carry It All,” “Rox in the Box,” and the album’s lead single “Down by the Water.” On his two “Hymn” songs from the album, Meloy is also able to evoke a pastoral naturalism that I associate more with XTC’s Skylarking than modern indie rock, and the nealry gospel sound to those tuns lend the album the solemnity it needs to balance out its often boisterous communal energy. Meloy is also a masterful storyteller and on the album’s star track “Calamity Song” (and also the second single “This Is Why We Fight”) he paints a dark and gloomy apocalyptic tale to match his upbeat and catchy folk rock backing.
The music is just as much fun as the lyrics. I do not like country music. Everyone has the one genre they can’t stand, and that’s mine. With the exception of alt-country artist like Wilco and Neko Case or the one classic country exception of Johnny Cash (who is essentially classic rock at this point), it’s not my cup of tea. My boss at the record store where I used to work would torture me with Garth Brooks records every chance he got, and it was agonizing. So when I say that the sense of classic country and bluegrass forms the very core of this album and there’s a note I don’t love, that’s really saying something. Perhaps, it’s the interplay between the bluegrass sound and the lyrics. One of the reasons I’ve never warmed up to country music is that the faux populism and maudlin emotion that makes up so much of modern country. Meloy and company are able to take the Americana and folk roots at the core of good country music and wraps it in actual poetry and lyricism. The closest this album comes to sounding like a modern indie rock creation is on the penultimate track “This Is Why We Fight” which is a very dark and brooding track that could have been left off of Neon Bible. Just to push the classic music nerd button in my brain a little more vigorously, they mix in some very Bob Dylan influenced harmonica riffs. This is the sort of album you could buy your parents (if your parents and cool and like The Band or Joan Baez) and they may dig this music even more than you.
I have a tendency to push the most obscure and inaccessible music on my friends who then proceed to think I’ve entered some acid-fueled frenzy of experimental avant-garde music. Even the things that I find to be accessible these days like “Summertime Clothes” by Animal Collective, “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem, or “Round and Round” by Ariel Pink are simply relatively accessible to the crazier things I listen to. I tried to get my little sister to listen to Cut Copy’s In Ghost Colour, and she pleasantly referred to it as techno-throwup (which I don’t even understand). This album is accessible in every sense of the word. Yet it manages to be accessible and artistically interesting at the same time and that’s no easy feat. For fans of country, folk, southern rock, or indie rock, this album has something for you. It’s easily the most lyrical and intellectual album I’ve listened to since Bonnie “Prince” Billie’s I See a Darkness and after dozens of listens since it was released back in January, it hasn’t lost an ounce of its power. Having relistened to it for this particular review, I now want to go back and re-explore the rest of The Decemberists’ catalogue because this album reminds me of just how truly great these nerd rockers can be.
Final Score: A