Putting on The King Is Dead, the new album by The Decemberists, is like walking into your favorite bar on a Tuesday evening and discovering that the management has decided to make it Irish night. And not even green Budweiser and shamrock-bikini barmaid night — where a seat at the bar or a bad play on the juke could earn you a fight with a townie in a Fighting Irish jersey — but session night (or, sorry, seisiún) with a bunch of old guys with blotchy faces and tweed caps in the corner beating drums and blowing on flutes and bitching about the Black and Tans, guys who are feeling their tragic roots so hard that no one dares utter a word and you have to sit there for at least three or four laments, maybe a jig, before you can sneak back out the door.
The Decemberists — who now, by the looks of their website, all seem to live together on a farm (with a horse) — have abandoned their quirky literate style for a presumably more honest kind of act. They’ve traded in all the ornate broadsides and picaresque ballads of Victorian England for the agrarian hymns and anthems of the Scotch-Irish migration. Gone are the modal scales and idiosyncratic rhythms and in come the flat, restricted melodies and repetitive choruses. Gone is the rich urban pageantry of urchins, widows, and nasty baronets and in come the blank and anonymous folk of the soil. To be sure, this is The Decemberists’ pastoralia: a damp and mossy collection, full of wrens and thrushes and jasmine and trillium and gurgling brooks and sunsets and changing seasons. But it’s more like a lie in the grass than a roll in the hay — a well-deserved break for an otherwise adventurous band, perhaps, but a boring afternoon in the sun for fans.
At the very least, this latest turn in the band’s career might answer a simple question: What’s this group really have besides its prog rock theatrics, advanced knowledge of British colonial history, and a rhyming dictionary? But The King Is Dead is far from an honest “return to roots,” let alone a satisfying “return to form.” It trades in the band’s most endearing tics and affectations for a lesser, more humdrum set of affectations. The band neither stamps its own sensibility on American roots music nor allows that music to carry them in a new direction. In this, it comes across as a much less successful version of XTC’s phenomenal turn to naturalism on Skylarking, which wove together a beautiful new tapestry out of unexpected sources. No, at best, The King Is Dead is a patchwork of genre exercises, giving listeners little more than a chance to play “spot the influence.” But even then it fails, for it taps only a very shallow stream of tradition, focusing on a series of folk facsimiles from the 70s and 80s that never quite add up to the real thing.
Sure, “Rise to Me” features a gorgeously lilting melody and an inspiring set of lyrics (not to mention that slide guitar!). And “Calamity Song” is a strong enough approximation of Murmur-era R.E.M. (“Talk About the Passion,” to be exact) to make you remember why that band once ruled the nation. But the opening harmonica blast and loping rhythm of “Don’t Carry It All” suggests only a lamer version of Tom Petty’s already beat “You Don’t Know How it Feels.” “Rox in the Box” sounds, even before its unbearable accordion solo, like the cancelled third act of Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance. “All Arise!” would clear out the honky-tonk faster than you can say “Achy Breaky Heart.” And “Dear Avery” betrays its wistful lost soldier tale by coming across, in its arrangement and references, like a hayseed version of ABBA’s “Fernando.”
I certainly respect musicians’ right to change styles, and I’m all for the musical evolution of my favorite bands, but even as a dedicated fan of The Decemberists, I can’t for the life of me find anything in this album that matters. Earlier songs in their catalogue pursue similar themes, but were stamped strangely with the band’s unique outlook and oblique style. “Sixteen Military Wives” is an infinitely more rousing and intriguing (and funnier) critique of war than “This Is Why We Fight,” the lumbering and inane mid-tempo rocker featured here. The natural settings on The Hazards of Love perfectly matched that album’s baroque tale of tragic love; they still seem more evocative — more welcoming, more ominous, more vivid and vital, as each song demanded — than the limp landscapes of this album’s “January Hymn” and “July Hymn.”
A more obvious influence for this album would have been Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose 19th-century nature poetry (Glory be to god for dappled things—; For skies as couple-color as a brinded cow…) seems — in its quirky diction and “sprung” rhythm — a far more exhilarating fit for The Decemberists’ style. Even Emily Dickinson, whose “slant”-wise approach to poetic sound and image (A bird came down the walk:/ He did not know I saw;/ He bit an angle-worm in halves/ And ate the fellow, raw.) could have given this pastoral a bit more punch.
Maybe I’m being too literary here, but, c’mon, we’re talking about The Decemberists. This band keeps us interested precisely because they know how to mix up fancy-pants poetry with kick-ass pop, using one end of the cultural spectrum to jar us out of the other. We need this band to be as literate as possible, their songs ridiculously bloated with history and wordplay. We need someone out there showing us that, yes, smart dorks can also rock. Listening to The King Is Dead, I feel like the betrayed lover on The Hazards of Love, whose “true love went riding out in white and green and gray.” No, I feel more like that fierce mother collecting her debt: “This is how I am repaid?!” The Decemberists can have their rural fling for an evening, but they better be back here in the bowery tomorrow with all the chimbley sweeps and sad legionnaires.