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The Decemberists' New Album Fit For A 'King'

The Decemberists' members made their reputation on the strength of group leader Colin Meloy's large, tortured vocabulary and penchant for spinning 10-minute-plus song cycles out with influences ranging from Siouxsie and the Banshees to Death Cab for Cutie. Too often, Meloy's use of 19th-century locutions has been pretty cutesy itself. Thus, any attempt by this clever, ambitious man to impose some concision on his music can only be beneficial. This quality makes the 10 songs on The King Is Dead cohere as The Decemberists' best album to date, thanks to brisk tunes such as "Don't Carry It All."

We can assume that the band's album title, The King Is Dead, is a cheerful one -- this is, after all, a group that took its name from an uprising, one of whose aims was to abolish monarchy, and which has been known to play the Soviet national anthem to open its shows. But thankfully, there's very little garrulous rabblerousing on The King Is Dead. Instead, Meloy and his band have enlisted singer Gillian Welch and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck to help make a record heavily influenced by '70s folk-rock, but with fresh riffs, not mere nostalgia. The result is a fine song: the album's first single, "Down By the Water," featuring both Buck and Welch.

That song triumphs over self-conscious phrasings such as "The summer swells anon" and "Sweet descend this rabble 'round" -- Colin Meloy often writes lyrics as though he never quite recovered from a first encounter with the work of Algernon Swinburne. But the guy has a terrific voice: plaintive without being whiny, earnest without being maudlin, coarsened by a fine graininess.

Always be skeptical of a fellow who has said numerous times that he was heavily influenced by the crown prince of mope-rock, Morrissey. But this time around, Meloy is describing The King Is Dead as a collection that's "an exercise in restraint" and more influenced by R.E.M and Neil Young. Listening to country and bluegrass music hasn't hurt, either, in one of the best songs from the album, "All Arise!"

One of the most enjoyable aspects of all of The Decemberists' albums is that the band avoids the autobiographical impulse -- the group doesn't spill out its memories or its neuroses with either urgency or emo lassitude. Meloy and his colleagues are, at best, real crafts-people, who take pride in constructing solid blocks of song; packages that open up to reveal, at their sturdiest, an interest in and appreciation of the world around them.

For that, we can put up with the occasional fussy phrasing or arch alliteration. As Meloy says in one of my favorite lines on this album -- which is all the better for sounding so colloquial and tossed-off -- "It's well-advised that you follow your own bag."

Indeed it is.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ken Tucker
Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.