The Decemberists are a divisive band, as all great bands are; they inspire fevered devotion in their fans, or outright revulsion in their detractors, and I imagine that that’s the way the band want it to be. Their albums are shaped around the fantastical, mundane, and downright nerdy.
From their debut album, 2002’s masterpiece Castaways and Cutouts ? a concept album about a dock-dwelling mother and her backdoor dealings with the human traffic of the seashore ? The Decemberists have carved out a very unique niche. They have the humour of The Smiths, the dream logic of Neutral Milk Hotel, and the storytelling nous and prowess of no other contemporary indie rock band. Their palette strikes tales of feudal Japan, the Battle of Leningrad, the Midwest of America, and into the fascinating imagination of songwriter and lyricist Colin Meloy.
It’s interesting to find, then, that new release The King Is Dead is somewhat apart from all that has gone before. On this new release, the band has eschewed their traditional approach of crafting an album around a concept or theme, however loose or piecemeal, in favour of something that sounds more like, well, more like an ordinary neo-country/rock album.
Which is not to say that The King is a bad album, or that it is not recognisable as The Decemberists. On the contrary, right from the jingle-jangle opening of “Don’t Carry It All”, it’s apparent that this is still the same band. But the lack of a unifying theme, concept, or lingering reference becomes clear as the album continues, and the realisation sets in that this is The Decemberists just making an album. Their eccentricity and outlandishness seems tempered, as though the band decided to restrain themselves and write a straight album without their usual flourishes and madness.
This is all very well and good (and, to be honest, their eccentricity does shine through, on songs such as “Rox In The Box”), but, for me, the madness is why I love The Decemberists. I love listening to a band that’s read more books than me and doesn’t mind telling me. However, my slight disappointment at this straighter approach is tempered somewhat by the loveliness of some of the songs, most notably “January Hymn,” which is a gorgeous, plaintive track. It would wash down nicer if it the other songs had a little more of the band’s characteristic bite and hook, to serve as a nice counterpoint.
Last year, I gushed about how excited I was that the Montreal pop-rock band Malajube had “gone progressive” on their last (bloody brilliant) album, Labyrinthes. I suppose the opposite is true of this new Decemberists album. A prog band going straight? Say it ain’t so, Joe. Don’t go down the Phil Collins route, lads and lasses. I can respect a band wanting to release an album that goes against the grain; that takes some balls. However, I can’t help but hope that the band’s next album will see them expressing their creativity to the fullest, biggest, maddest-bastardest.