When you call your album “The King Is Dead,” there needs to be a mood (either lyrically or musically) that backs up and explains that statement. And when you’re The Decemberists, there’s going to be a story to go along with the entire album. Who was this king? Was he a good king or a bad king? Are people dancing in the streets, or walking aimlessly in sackcloth, unsure of their futures. Was it an assassination, was he killed in battle, or did he die of old age or disease?
The album begins with the words “Here we come to a turning of the season.” The track, Don’t Carry It All is upbeat and gives off the impression of a group of travelers heading out on a new journey, a departure from what they’ve already done. “So raise a glass to turnings of the season, and watch is as it archs off to the sun.” They begin the album with a clear toast to new beginnings.
But where new beginnings exist, departures form the past are necessary. And not only does the band depart musically from their past albums, but they also depart in terms of how they tell their stories. And this is where you need to pay attention.
Until now, The Decemberists had created albums that told epic stories. Homeric tomes that began at page one, and continued until someone lived happily ever after, or died a horrible death. Tolkien-esque, with fantasy writing and storytelling overwhelmed their tales. It was innovative and original because it’s a storytelling genre rarely told to music. Sure, heavy metal uses it from time to time, but they don’t usually take a full album to tell one story. And this was The Decemberists’ greatness and their brilliance – that they told fantasy epics to music. And the music was necessarily fantastic – with shuddering guitars, wails, and pounding drums contrasted with slow simple rhythms; everything written to match the ups and downs of the perfect Middle Earth themed album.
Folklore, however, is not like this. Folk stories are not exotic tales of heroism. They’re everyday stories of regular people, oral histories of families, and quaint fairy tales. They make up the core of the most original American culture – not necessarily because of the everyday nature of the stories themselves, but because in the early days of our country this was how people distracted themselves from their problems – by telling stories and playing music.
So, yes – the king is dead. The fantastic, the fantasy, the decadent, and the overdone; all dead and killed. And it was the king who killed himself, to be reborn as a simple farmer, a king who was tired of the demands of royalty and just wanted to live out his days with his family – telling stories of the olden days, writing songs of the despairs of winter, dancing in hoedowns, and mourning the loss of loved ones.
With “The King Is Dead,” The Decemberists have laid to rest their style of the past, and have immersed themselves wholly in the style of folk. In location (they recorded the album on an 8-acre farm). In storytelling. And finally, in music. This is what they clearly set out to do, and they’ve succeeded as can only be expected of a band as great as this.
The Decemberists – Don’t Carry It All
The Decemberists – All Arise!