Pastoral Tense: The Decemberists drop Old World fantasy for New World Americana.
Pastoral Tense: The Decemberists drop Old World fantasy for New World Americana.

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The Decemberists have a reputation for fetishizing the obscure and the archaic, but the band’s sixth album, The King Is Dead, speaks to its own time: Every vessel is “pitching hard to starboard” (to the Right, that is). California has “succumbed to the fault line.” And the ghost of Hetty Green, the infamous 19th century dowager of Wall Street, haunts the wreckage of America “in the year of the chewable Ambien tab.” On past albums, songwriter and frontman Colin Meloy has sung of wan personages toiling in the shadows of Old World monarchies. Here he sketches the New World, widowed of its gilded majesty.

Recorded in a barn outside of Portland, Ore., The King Is Dead deploys the pastoral motifs of a proper Americana album: the heaving contours of the frontier, the idyll of the left-behind home and long-lost son, the certainty of death, the hope of salvation, the turning of the earth. The album’s opening song, “Don’t Carry It All,” is a salvo of goodwill straight from the Book of Guthrie. However, the season of brotherhood and burden-sharing is brief; the quasi-apocalyptic “Calamity Song” heralds a new season of scarcity. Discontented strivers claw for scraps along a bleak stretch of album marked by gothic sketches such as “Rox in the Box”—a cheeky miner’s chantey—and “Down by the Water,” which sounds so much like one of R.E.M.’s downcast, minor-key anthems that Meloy recruited Peter Buck to play guitar on it. Not until the third-to-last track does The King Is Dead take a vernal turn with “June Hymn,” the album’s prettiest song, before tacking toward redemption on its most epic one, “This Is Why We Fight.”

For all its thematic darkness, The King Is Dead is musically bright and very listenable. Harmonicas and violins moan and sigh over familiar but satisfying country textures. As usual—although somewhat incongruously in this case, given the rootsy flavor of the songs—Meloy sends us reeling toward the nearest Oxford Unabridged Dictionary with heavily ornamented lyrics. (George Jones & Co. sang about women plenty, but I’m not sure any country crooner ever used the words “queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab.”) Nobody is going to mistake these for campfire songs. But, in the end, Meloy’s diction and syntactic pirouettes more often serve to make his phrases metrically precise than to belabor them.

For the win, The Decemberists bring in bluegrass cynosures Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings to sing backup on a handful of tracks. Listeners who are particularly susceptible to the charms of roots music, if they close their eyes when Welch and Rawlings lock into harmony on either side of Meloy’s vocal flourish on the bridge of “June Hymn,” are likely to see God. On the other hand, listeners who prefer the charms of the Decemberists’ previous endeavors—period pieces, fantasy theater, the tedious unfurling of esoteric foreign folk poems—could be less ecstatic about The King Is Dead, which might seem prosaic by comparison. Let them chew their Ambien and take heart that no season is permanent, while the rest of us toast the new regime.