For the majority of The Decemberists’ career, complicated concept albums have been the norm, ranging from a loose interpretation of a traditional Japanese folk tale á la 2006’s “The Crane Wife,” to the unnecessarily complex romantic narrative of 2009’s “The Hazards of Love.”
These dense narratives added an additional level of inaccessibility, on top of the bands’ interest in progressive rock and traditional music (including sea shanties and traditional folk ballads) on previous records. This penchant towards inaccessibility for the majority of their releases makes the newest Decemberists’ release “The King is Dead,” all the more offsetting in its unconditional embracement of American country music.
The opening track “Don’t Carry it All” provides the listener with a comprehensive idea of the direction the band will be heading with their new rural aesthetic. Combining the rustic country-rock of Neil Young’s landmark album “Harvest,” with the percussive drive of the Arcade Fire’s “Funeral,” “Don’t Carry it All” is a mission statement for the Decemberists’ new sound and their abandonment of their usual dense inaccessibility, along with stigma that inherently came along with it: “Let the yoke fall from our shoulders/Don’t carry it all/We are all our hands and holders.” The Decemberists are sure to let the listener know that the band themselves are solely in charge of their own destiny and their new sound.
And it’s a mission statement that would be very easy to get behind if it was for any other album, from any other band. The Decemberists had created an identity unlike any other band when they released their first record over a decade ago. Not only did the music sound fresh, the band themselves were keenly self-aware of their musical identity — adventurous, varied but always confident.
Yet, with this release, the band has joined the ever-growing roster of alt-country bands that formed in the wake of Wilco’s breakthrough 2002 release,“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” Having established a substantial discography in direct contrast to the idea of genre limitations, it’s difficult to feel comfortable in the band’s self-imposed limitation to a populous and naturally accessible genre such as country.
And it isn’t just the listener feeling uncomfortable either; the band constantly sounds as though they’re playing a character and never sounding nearly as comfortable as they did in previous releases. Ultimately this limits the impact of “The King is Dead“ to sounding little more than a mediocre attempt to reach an audience that may have been intimidated by the band’s previous grand concepts.