When I was a kid I remember ambling over to the concession stand at a public pool, Timberline Park in Brentwood, NY, to be exact, one hazy summer day. The town employee at the helm of the concession stand was wearing a vans t-shirt, the one with the red, white, and black block logo. It was the mid-eighties and skate boarding had become ubiquitous but that clearly sticks in my head as being the first time I saw that logo despite the legions of older neighborhood kids building ramps and randomly shouting “Hosoi.” Over the course of the next year I would come across that logo everywhere and would always reference that day at the pool every time I saw it. I clearly remember thinking it was weird that I had not known something that seemed so culturally significant one day and then would see it everywhere as soon as I had it burned into my retinas that day at the pool. It was my first lesson in the power of the old adage that when you see something once you begin to see it everywhere.
The Decemberists new album The King Is Dead has reached that level of ubiquity. It’s tough to surf the web, open iTunes or get whatever ‘zine it is you happen to get in the mail without seeing the banner ad for the album, in all its yellow splendor, staring right at you. Turn on the TV and there they are on Jay Leno, flip on the radio to your local NPR station and there they are again, following you. Their all encompassing presence in the cultural ether has paid off, as of this week they will debut at #1 on the Billboard album charts moving 90,000 plus copies in the first week alone.
So even before you hear a note of The King is Dead you wonder; is the hype you are encountering simply an echo of the chorus of hype ringing loud out from Oregon to the universe at large? Or is it warranted? The answer is yes….and no.
This is not a classic album, good yes, but it fails on a level that is essential to any album deemed classic. At times brilliant, it is also utterly monotonous at times, plodding along through a track list that seems more a collection of songs rather than a cohesive album, and therein lies the rub. It is that lack of dynamic range, the excess of mid-tempo composition, the lack of variety that grates at you. By the time you’ve worked your way through the album you might be wondering what all the fuss is about.
There are gems on the album too, clear standouts that seem to happen when the band slows the tempo down and brings out their soulful side. “Rise To Me” is utterly beautiful, a stirring, mournful anthem sung to the immovable power of nature and relationships. I promise you that after one listen you will find yourself singing this song as you walk around the house, belting out the chorus unconsciously. The album’s closer, “Dear Avery” is the most haunting ballad ever addressed to man’s best friend and a definite keeper. The honky tonk of “All Arise!” falls into that category too, a hoe down of a duet between Colin Meloy and Jenny Conlee about a star crossed lover. The word “countrified” seems to show up a lot in reference to the album but, at its best, it is classic American roots rock. I don’t know when this all got confused with country music but its more in the tradition of The Band than say, George Jones.
For every wonderful moment there are also some that are inexplicably grating. “Down By the Water” doesn’t benefit at all from the guest appearances of REM’s Peter Buck and Gillian Welch who add nothing to the track, which could have used rescuing from the nasally, whining chorus. Same for “This is Why We Fight” which, sans guests, falls woefully flat at point in the album that should really be delivering a knockout blow.
What ultimately convinced me of the worthiness of this album though (they can’t all be note perfect) was “June Hymn.” Check this lyric: “Once upon it, yellow bonnet, garland all along. You were waking, day was breaking, a panoply of song.” This is the most jaw droppingly pretentious lyric that you will see on an album this year but somehow they make it work. Any band that can pull that off and not have it come across as saccharine and contrived is o.k. by me. “June Hymn” is a soulful tribute to the technicolor memories of your summers past, a highlight of the album and the essence of The Decembrists in a nutshell. Pretentious and soulful, after all, is very tough to pull off.
As I am writing this I took a look up from the computer at my buzzing phone beside the monitor on my desk. It was a tweet from @nyctaper: “7th row for Decemberists. Sweet.” There they are again, The Decemberists, penetrating every facet of my media consumption. Sweet? I am still not so sure.
Follow Tom Volk on Twitter, @tom_volk