Moving away from the baroque folk of their previous work, The Decemberists have embraced rootsy Americana. However, many of the band's signature touches remain.
Decemberists root their new republic in the old
The song Rise to Me is typical of The Decemberists' sixth album, The King Is Dead. It opens as a lazy paean to the "big mountain, wide river", of an archetypal rural American landscape, complete with the pedal-steel guitar and acoustic-guitar bass line we associate with an artist like Neil Young. This earnest, country-rock sound feels like a major departure for a band known for their playful irony, for things like including a nine-minute pastiche sea shanty on their 2005 album Picaresque. But then, The Decemberists are a band who have made a career out of defying expectations.
When they released their debut album in 2002, the American indie-rock scene was an earnest place. As the angst-filled albums of emo bands like Dashboard Confessional made it big, music journalists announced the death of irony. Beck, an artist who had made his name on the back of parodic hip-hop tunes and theatrical live performances that involved him dressing up as Elvis, put away the double-necked guitars and flying beds of his 1990s shows and embarked on a solo acoustic tour. A garage-rock revival was spearheaded by The Strokes, a band who, late in 2001, pulled a song that joked about the stupidity of New York City cops off their first album. After the destruction of the World Trade Center no one felt like being funny about disturbing subjects.
In Portland, Oregon, however, a fledgling band called The Decemberists decided that this was the perfect time to release Castaways and Cutouts, a record filled with theatrical, ironic, jolly numbers in what would become the band's signature style - numbers like A Cautionary Song, a pastiche of a vaudeville tune in which a mother's admonition to her child to eat his greens spins into a grisly account of her secret life as a ship's prostitute. So began a recording career in which the band have, over and over again, succeeded by releasing records that fly in the face of the mood of the moment.
Fast-forwarding to 2011, The Suburbs, a concept album by The Arcade Fire, is the talk of the indie town. It tops the Billboard chart, and The Arcade Fire become one of the few bands able to sell out a major tour after a year dominated by tales of big-name artists struggling to fill music venues. Concept albums, it appears, are cool again. The Decemberists choose this moment to abandon the concept-album genre which they have been working in for the past five years and put out The King Is Dead, a record of rootsy rock songs. And, of course, coming from a band that has never released a top-10 album, it immediately goes to the top of the US album chart.
The band deliberately envisaged this collection as an antithesis to their previous record, The Hazards of Love (2009), an overwrought narrative affair that reworked British mythology into a complex folk-rock cantata, mixing up the work of the English folk revivalist Anne Briggs with a story of wicked fairy queens and shape-shifting princes. After all this, the band's singer Colin Meloy perhaps understandably "just kind of wanted to play some normal songs".
It might seem strange that The King Is Dead works as well as it does, since the typical Decemberists track is a playful imitation of, say, Victorian vaudeville or English folk music, whose success comes from the funny or disturbing twist it gives to its source material. That nine-minute sea shanty, The Mariner's Revenge Song, is a tale of two sailors trapped inside a whale's stomach, one of whom has sworn to murder the other, for example.
Decemberists songs employ all the clichés of melodrama: a couple trysting in secret because their "parents will never consent to this love", the story of "a rake and a roustabout" ruining a good woman, a lover who is his beloved's "brother's sworn enemy". They are at their best when they stay light and playful on the surface. The poignancy of their often dark subject matter is, paradoxically, intensified by being half-hidden, seeming to shine through from behind a layer of pastichery as self-consciously flimsy as the cardboard theatre that appears on the cover of Picaresque.
This is, for instance, how O Valencia!, a single from The Crane Wife (2006) and probably the band's best-known song, works. The lyric tells the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers planning escape from their rival-gang families - although, as in many of the murder ballads which Meloy admires, the chorus gives the game away right from the start, with its description of the heroine's "blood still warm on the ground". Still, the pathos of the tragic ending is heightened by its contrast with the self-consciously derivative West Side Story plot and the jaunty, jangly guitar-pop tune.
On the other hand, the more earnest The Decemberists get, the worse they seem to be. The Crane Wife was universally praised but critics sounded warning notes over the prog-rock pretensions of the three-part, 15-minute title track. The Hazards of Love, for some, compounded this sin by no longer flirting charmingly with the conventions of kitsch, instead leaping bombastically into its arms.
So why have The Decemberists stepped away from English folk-rock and moved toward rootsy Americana? The truth is that, despite appearances and minus the pantaloons and pirates, The King Is Dead is actually very similar in approach to the band's earlier albums. Although some of the archaic language that characterised such records is gone, there is still a "panoply of song" here, a "dowager empress" there: as with previous Decemberists efforts, the lyrics are frequently slightly show-offy. Yet arresting imagery flashes out more often than you might initially think. The band can make flowers sound beautiful: "Once upon it/The yellow bonnets/Garland all the lawn". Easy enough, perhaps, but they also do the same for a post-apocalyptic landscape, describing "the Andalusian tribes/Setting the lay of Nebraska alight/Till all that remain is the arms of the angels."
More importantly, though, even in its country-rock moments, the affecting core of The King Is Dead once again emerges through layers of imitation and pastiche. Meloy describes several of the songs as "out-and-out homages to REM". Indeed, the album seems made for playing music-nerd games of spot-the-reference that verge on the tiresomely smarty-pants: Down by the Waterrecalls Young's Down by the River, a phrase itself drawn from the murder-ballad tradition. And listen… on the same track, there's the guitar riff from REM's The One I Love (actually being played by Peter Buck, who appears as a guest, along with the modern folk singer Gillian Welch).
Other tracks feature Bob Dylan-style harmonica parts or lead guitar lines that imitate Buck's musical forebear, The Byrds' Roger McGuinn - and there, on January Hymn, as if in acknowledgement, is a self-conscious musical quotation from Dylan's Mr Tambourine Man, a song made famous by The Byrds. This Is Why We Fight concludes with a miniature parody of the old-time folk recordings that inspired Dylan's Basement Tapes, complete with fake vinyl crackles and an updated gibberish hillbilly lyric ("Been to the vet three times this week…").
As with all The Decemberists' best work, however, The King Is Dead inhabits clichés only to surprise us by twisting them. Rox in the Box, a dance tune about mining, builds to a nasty conclusion: "There's plenty of men to die; you don't jump your turn." And the big mountain and wide river of Rise To Me turn out not to be predictable objects of nostalgia but portents of a natural world about to kick back against humankind's depredations, warning the listener that they are "going to stand my ground/You rise to me and I'll blow you down." In the end, moments like these make sense of Meloy's fascination with folk revivals, whether English or American. The originality of artists such as Anne Briggs and Bob Dylan lies in their ability to reinvent the most well-worn of musical conventions and, by picking up something old, make something new. At their best, this is what The Decemberists do too.
Tom Perrin teaches literature at the University of Chicago. He has written for the Times Literary Supplement.