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A change of pace, and a mixed bag, but with a few great cuts
on January 18, 2011
That this album sounds a bit different from the last few Decemberists albums is only to be expected. Colin Meloy has stated explicitly that this album takes some of its inspiration from the band R.E.M, with R.E.M band member Peter Buck guesting on three tracks. As a change in direction, I was, I'll admit, a bit skeptical of an R.E.M infused Decemberists album; I didn't see that mix coming at all. But change is not necessarily bad change, and I have to this moment been a loyal fan, so I got this album today as it came out and dutifully listened to it front to back. While there are a few standout tracks on this album, I couldn't help but feel a bit let down. Much of what made the Decemberists so unique, the tone and feel, the epic stories as per "Mariner's Revenge Song" or "the Crane Wife" the clever lyrics and song structure, have been intentionally stripped down. What is left is a set of pared down, and to my ears, fairly standard songs. Not bad, but not what I've come to expect from the Decemberists, a band whose every album up to now I have loved.
If the Decemberists have excelled at anything, it is creating a world for their songs to occupy. Listening to their first three albums, the real strength was in the relation of the music to the lyrics. "Legionnaire's Lament" did a wonderful job of conjuring up images of a dejected French foreign legionnaire stranded in the desert longing for his home. "On the Bus Mall" similarly brought to mind the teenage runaways of the song's lyrics. The beauty of these songs was the images and feelings they could conjure. On "The King is Dead" I struggle to think of an example of a song that quite is able to conjure up images like those previous albums. Songs like "Don't Carry It All" and "Calamity Song" sound so ordinary in comparison to what was practically musical storytelling in earlier albums. Another element that I loved so much in older Decemberists albums was the feel. Even when they contained upbeat songs, the feel of their earlier albums was undeniably darker: some songs overtly so, but even their most upbeat songs, "July, July" and "16 Military Wives", had lyrics at least hinting at something deeper and unsettling at the heart of the music. That tone is almost lacking entirely from this album. Perhaps some may be fine with that. I lament the loss of what was I think relatively deep music.
Luckily, there were a few choice cuts that really rose above the rest of the album. "Rise to Me", "January Hymn" and "June Hymn" are all great ballads in classic Decemberists style, the successors, perhaps, to "Right Red Ankle". Chris Funk adds some excellent steel pedal guitar flourishes on "Rise to Me". "This is Why We Fight", the closest thing the album has to a real burner, is also excellent, and a showcase for Meloy's guitar work, which I did not know was as good as it is. The album closer "Dear Avery" is in my mind easily the strongest track, recalling the best the Decemberists have to offer. On the strength of those five songs I can say that this purchase was not a waste for me.
"Hazards of Love" was itself a major change in direction for the Decemberists, and a polarizing album for Decemberists fans, so I have chosen not to reference it in this review. I will, however, draw comparisons to to the core collection of Decemberists albums that really represented their style until very recently: "Castaways and Cutouts", "Her Majesty", "Picaresque" and "The Crane Wife". Despite the strength of a few great tracks on "The King Is Dead", I can't but say that each of those albums is superior. Some who were put off by the change of tone in "The Hazards of Love" (I'll say that I loved it, actually) expected this to be a return to form for the Decemberists. Rather, it is yet another direction, but this time, a less unique and, I can't help feeling, a less emotionally powerful one.