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Issue #34 - Year End 2010 - Sufjan StevensThe Decemberists

The King Is Dead


Jan 17, 2011 The Decemberists Bookmark and Share

The Decemberists have never been shy about their Anglophilia, their early releases often marked by dark, Victorian tales. But if there’s a writer the band has emulated—consciously or otherwise—it’s more Leo Tolstoy than Charles Dickens. Tolstoy, after all, penned War and Peace and Anna Karenina—both classics long enough to double as doorstops—but was just as adept at short stories. Similarly, The Decemberists have grown from quirky three-minute numbers such as “Billy Liar” and “The Sporting Life” to 2009’s sprawling rock opera, The Hazards of Love. So, after that, where else was there for them to go but back to basics?

The King Is Dead marks a return to form, of sorts, as the band sheds the proggy pretensions that marked not only Hazards, but also The Crane Wife and The Tain EP. It’s their most American-sounding record to date. They are, after all, an American band, informed as much by R.E.M. (whose Peter Buck guests on King) and CSNY as by The Smiths and the English folk revival.

Opener “Don’t Carry it All,” with its dominant snare drum and harmonica line, recalls Wildflowers-era Tom Petty, while “Rise to Me” has the same Eagles vibe that characterized Hazards closer “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned).” Elsewhere, such as on “All Arise!” and “Dear Avery,” the quintet feels almost indebted to modern country, offering up the kind of tracks that someone like George Strait could credibly perform without throwing off his audience, thanks to a gentle country bounce on both, honky tonk piano tinklings on the former, and the prevalent steel guitars on the latter. Still, their Brit-loving side crops up occasionally, such as the Fairport Convention-inspired “Rox in the Box,” but the vast majority of the record feels informed by American folk traditions.

Overall, it’s the band’s most consistent LP since Her Majesty, avoiding the pitfalls of repeating their earlier work (as on Picaresque) and cutting the fat that clogged parts of The Crane Wife and Hazards. More than that, however, The King Is Dead feels more like a full-band Decemberists album than nearly anything they’ve done before, and much less like The Colin Meloy Show of the last two records.

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