The Decemberists have a penchant for Victorian dress. The Portland-based band became famous for their carefully crafted nerd pop and their obvious British folk influences. With their latest album “The King is Dead,” however they’ve traded waistcoats and bowler hats for plaid flannel, and abandoned their well-loved baroque pop for a sound that’s pure Americana. Change seems to be the Decemberists’ style these days: their last offering, “Hazards of Love,” was a rock opera, drizzled with brilliance but drenched in pretense. Now the Decemberists have shed that skin of progressive rock bombast, but the result is equally patchy and puzzling.
It’s clear that they were aiming for Wilco, but the album is destroyed by its heavy-handedness. The album’s opener, “Don’t Carry it All,” begins with the blare of a shrilling harmonica, musical shorthand for, “THIS IS A COUNTRY-ROCK RECORD.” It sets the tone for the entire album. The Decemberists seem to have read a recipe for folk-country (two parts steel guitar, three parts harmonica, one part fiddle), and they stick to it throughout. “January Hymn” is cloyingly pleasant, though the saccharine “ooh-ooh-ooh” harmonies prove to be a bit too much. On closer, “Dear Avery,” frontman Colin Meloy sings of the passing youth of a beloved young man, but the sentiment is trite and doesn’t ring at all true. And “All Arise!” is just awful—we’re talking shades of “Achy Breaky Heart” bad.
But the album isn’t without its high points. Some are reminiscent of the old Decemberists—”Rise to Me,” a track about Meloy’s four-year-old son, shines with sincerity that even another set of adjoining pedal steel/harmonica solos can’t obscure. “Calamity Song” is catchy and contagiously energetic, but “June Hymn” is the album’s standout, succeeding in every way “Dear Avery” falters. Guest-vocalist Gillian Welch’s harmonies soar; even the ever-present harmonica works perfectly, and for once its solo doesn’t seem at all forced. It’s a tantalizing taste of what “The King is Dead” could have been.
When a band is as fond of wardrobe changes as the Decemberists are, it becomes difficult to tell if the latest getup is part of an honest evolution or an endless musical costume party. Though “The King is Dead” is tragically flawed, Meloy’s songwriting is as solid as ever. At their core, the Decemberists are great musicians, capable of producing intrigue, innovation, and beauty—it’s the surface that trips them up. Though this album is less overwrought than their previous releases, they’re just trading old conceits for new. Rather than the “wilt(s)” and “thou(s)” that marked their lyrical flings with Shakespearean lingo, the Decemberists are now trying to capture a sort of frank simplicity that they clearly associate with the American west. It’s condescending, and it’s not working.