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2023 Albums Thing 100 - The Decemberists “The King Is Dead”

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We reach album number 100 in this meander through my collection which is quite a milestone. I really thought we’d be further on than the letter D by #100. 

“The King Is Dead” is the album that broke The Decemberists to a wider audience. “Down By The Water”, released as a single toward the end of 2010, reached number 33 in the US Rock charts. NPR (National Public Radio) in the US nominated it as one of the top 100 songs of 2011 and it was nominated for both Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song at the Grammy’s in 2012. Stylistically it sails very close to REM, Colin Meloy has said it "started out as more of a paean to R.E.M. than I think any of us really wanted it to be" and REM’s Peter Buck does play on the song plus two others on the album ("Don't Carry It All" and "Calamity Song”).

This is NOT however an REM tribute album, it is most certainly a Decemberists record, and a very, very, very good one. The sound has shifted for “The King Is Dead”. It’s not as overtly Brit-folksy as on previous albums and the Prog proclivities are kept well in check. It’s a much more American folk based album that demonstrates more alliance with Americana and, OK I’ll say it again, REM. There’s no chaff in here either, 10 songs, no filler, a couple of what qualify as rockers (in as much as the Decemberists can rock) and some of Colin Meloy’s very best acoustic ballads.

If you think back to when I told you about how I started with The Decemberists you’ll maybe recall the prompt was hearing a friend at an open mic night play “Don’t Carry It All” and here it is, track 1 side 1. If acoustic guitars can hammer in at the start then these acoustic guitars do just that in tandem with a wailing Harmonica and a song about community collaboration and the coming of spring. “Calamity Song” and “Down By the Water” are the closest we get to prime REM and the latter includes the delicious lyric “All dolled up in gabardine, The lash-flashing Leda Of Pier Nineteen” (where Leda sounds like leader but is actually a mythical Spartan Queen). The two seasonal songs “January Hymn” and “June Hymn” are beautiful acoustic ballads with “June Hymn” being one of my very favourite Decemberists songs. We also have a song about the futility of war and a hillbilly hoedown in “Rox In The Box”. Final song “Dear Avery” see guitarist Chris Funk let loose on pedal steel to wonderful effect.

We do need to make mention of some dictionary/encyclodedia moments on “The King Is Dead”…Trillium is a group of flowering plants including toadshade, birthroot, and wood lily; there is mention of Hetty Green once known as the Queen of Wall Street; Ambien, a prescription sleeping pill; and my favourite Panoply, being an impressive or extensive collection…educational as ever.

The longform storytelling songs have been ditched for this album, it’s a very tight, concise and confident  record of American folk/pop. Alongside “The Crane Wife” and “Picaresque” this is a great starting point for a Decemberists newbie.

June Hymn - https://youtu.be/EnP5hRYp6uI

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