Album Review (3 of 52): The Decemberists - "The King Is Dead"

Synopsis: An exceptionally strong album from start to finish by The Decemberists.This is the kind of album that I like from the beginning but reveals more and more depth with repeated listening. Exceptional contributions from some very talented artists, provocative lyrics and layered melodies make it easily approachable but also give it great staying power.

A Sense of Time

The are several themes running through this album that bear examination, but because of the juxtaposition in my own listening experience with the Kings of Leon's "Come Around Sundown" two weeks ago, I want to explore the use of time in this album. I'm not arguing that this is what the band (and Colin Meloy in particular) had in mind when they made the album. My view on that is that the only definative conclusions that you can draw from a piece of music are the conclusions that the artists draw for themselves. That said, as a listener, I'm also free to observe themes and draw my own conclusions from the artists' work.

If the album that I reviewed two weeks ago was about a sense of place, then this album by the Decemberists is about a sense of time. Not necessarily a time in particular, but the flow of time. In fact, the songs here expand in several different dimensions both within a year and across a lifetime.

As if to make my point, the album starts off with this lyric in the great song "Don't Carry It All":

Here we come to a turning of the season
Witness to the arc towards the sun
A neighbor's blessed burden within reason
Becomes a burden borne of all and one

The first thing you hear as you come into this album is a heartfelt exhortion to "share the burden" with our neighbors and it starts with a "turn of the season." It's a hopeful and melodic song; and I love it.

Here's a You Tube video of the song. I couldn't find video for the song, so this version of the song played over the song track will hopefully encourage you to buy the album (just like I did).

Also, it's worth pointing out as we are getting into this album, that it benefits greatly from some brilliant collaboration from Gillian Welch (folk heroine whom I first learned of late in "O Brother, Where Art Thou"), her longtime musical partner Dave Rawlings, and Peter Buck (R.E.M.). Welch's nearly perfect voice provides a modest, but spot-on harmony to Meloy's voice on half the songs here. Buck's influence is felt on several songs, especially the second song, "Calamity Song."

The time theme continues in "Calamity Song" conjures up a vision of the end of times. Specifically, it's about a dream of "you and mea and the war of the end-times." More of a question about where we'll all be at the end of time. It's an exhortation to look ahead and think about where we'll be.

Keeping with the Time theme, there is a neat simple symetry about having "January Hymn" and "June Hymn" just minutes from each other on the album. And they both do a masterful job of evoking a feeling for the season without resorting directly trying to describe them. Both songs evoke the seasons and the feelings that Meloy (and we) associate with them. Melancholy memories are dredged up in "January Hymn." Likewise, "June Hymn" comes at us with this:

Here's a hymn to welcome in the day
Heralding a summer's early sway
And all the bulbs all coming in
To begin
The thrushes bleating battle with the wrens
Disrupts my reverie again

It's all looking forward in this song. And he drags us way forward, wondering whether we'll remember this time as fondly in the future as we do now.

So, enough with the time theme, there are more references to time that I'd could bring up, but I'll leave it to you to ponder and enjoy.

There are a couple of other songs I'd like to point out though. "Down by the Water" is one of my favorite songs on this album. Again, the influence of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck is manifest.

Finally, I want to point out the song "This Is Why We Fight." I've listened to this song maybe 20 times this week and I'm not sure whether I get it or not, but I think it's a rousing anthem in the guise of an indie melody. To me, these lyrics are an eyes-open, war-is-hell, reflection on the pain and/but necessity of fighting for what we have.

And when we die
We will die
With our arms unbound
This is why
This is why we fight

I'll look forward to anyone telling me why I've misinterpreted this.

In the end, this is a great album. I expect that this will be on my regluar playlist for years to come.