Hey! Come back! You ought to know that The Decemberists are also more than a little bit country… Wait! Don’t go! Be calmed by the fact that Portland’s Decemberists rock some, too.
There’s no fey, ‘hey nonny nonny’ tut on this, their sixth album; there’s a muscularity, a blue collar element in the spirit of Springsteen.
It’s particularly evident on the grumbling This is Why We Fight, opener Don’t Carry it All, and the killer track, Down by the Water, with its title similar to a line The Boss once famously sang (“We’d go down to the river”) and a harmonica break that could as easily have been parped by Clarence Clemons, E Street Band saxophonist.
The other side of The Decemberists is a genteel one. They sound like well-to-do collegiate folkies on the gorgeous Rise to Me. Rox in the Box is a Yankee take on north London’s Fairport Convention, and Calamity Song rings out like it was a track on 1984’s Reckoning, the jingle-jangle masterwork by R.E.M.
Those past masters of stadium-filling are evoked more than once: front man Colin Meloy’s quavering vocal frequently holds steady and drops deeper to become Michael Stipe-esque.
It no surprise that the most famous sons of Athens, Georgia, have an influence on The King is Dead; guitarist Peter Buck features as a guest, as does alt-country singer-songwriter Gillian Welch, who lends her distinctive voice – like that of a hard-toilin’ spinster of the old Midwest – to several tracks.
The Decemberists’ previous album, Hazards of Love, was a prog-tinged concept album of sorts, but its follow-up has a lightness of touch and a rootsy air. If there’s a binding theme – albeit a loose one – it’s the passing of a year: songs called January Hymn and July Hymn, and references to “summer’s freckled knees” and “cold climes come springtime”. This is annus mirabilis, not annus horribilis.