MusicJanuary 20, 2011 at 12:39 am

Review: The Decemberists, the King is Dead

The Decemberists show few signs of life on latest full–length

The Decemberists never seemed like the kind of band to pull any punches. Their discography is full of literary allusions, SAT words and an epic mentality fit for a fairy tale — not exactly the kind of fare that leads to a major label deal. Yet, somehow, Colin Meloy and co. made it to the top of the indie heap, never abandoning their quirky sensibilities in the process. And though they have amassed their fair share of haters, they weren’t a group whose uniqueness could be called into question… until now.

The Decemberists’ sixth full–length, The King is Dead, shows the Portland–based band retreating from most of what made them attractive, falling hopelessly into a country slog. Their lyrics, which once ranged from somewhat interesting to reasonably profound, have become indistinct and wholly unremarkable. “Down By The Water” questions how many times a single song can repeat a pop cliché, while call–to–arms “This Is Why We Fight” is too corny to be appropriately invigorating. The songs that work — album opener “Don’t Carry It All” and the quaint “Rox In The Box” — work on only the most basic level, remaining safely sheltered in a cocoon of inoffensively pretty folk.

The band’s last work, 2009’s The Hazards of Love, was panned by several critics for its unwieldy, bloated concepts, despite the fact that it was really pretty good, especially in a live setting. It seems as if The King is Dead is a hypersensitive reaction to this criticism, a back–to–basics album designed to prove the band’s ability to craft songs with more traditional structures. But really, if The King is Dead proves anything, it’s that The Decemberists are unable to play it safe, and they would do best to never even try.

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