The Decemberists have never been shy about writing epic songs. From an album based on a Japanese folk tale (The Crane Wife), to a “Hey Jude”-esque ode to an ex-spy (“Valerie Plame”), the band’s epic aspirations reached their peak on 2009’s The Hazards of Love, which pretty much earned the label “rock opera.” On their newest album though, The King is Dead, The Decemberists are content to simply sit out in the fields with acoustic guitars and sing about more down-to-earth subjects, like, the earth. One of the themes of The King is Dead is how the earth cycles through the seasons, seasons which might come every year but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve hymns. As the album begins, “Here we come to a turning of the season / Witness to the arc towards the sun.”
The King is Dead is a rustic affair, with acoustic guitar, accordion, fiddle, etc., forming a concise pastoral sound that matches the nature-laden lyrics. And while the album is markedly simple and short compared to the rest of their catalogue, all the orthodox Decemberists adjectives -- quirky, charming, literate -- still apply. Take, for instance, this wordy but altogether charming and catchy line from “Calamity Song”: “Hetty Green / Queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab / Know what I mean?” Along with the English major vocabulary and Americana harmonica though, are the dual themes of war and home that run through much of The Decemberists’ music.
The undercurrent of war on The King is Dead begins with “Calamity Song.” Over a propulsive, Peter Buck-picked guitar figure, Colin Meloy sings, “Had a dream / You and me and the war of the end-times.” This dream of an end-times war then becomes an all but inevitable reality at the end of the album, on the penultimate “This is Why We Fight”: “Come the war / Come the avarice / Come the war... This is why we fight.” But when The Decemberists sing about war they also sing about comradery, love, and the hope of going home. So, the album ends with “Dear Avery,” a wistful song that finds Meloy and Gillian Welch simply bidding the boy to, “Please Avery, come home.”
This connection between war and home is most explicit, and most epic, on the last song of The Crane Wife, “Sons & Daughters.” It’s a hopeful, lifting song that imagines a post-war where there is a redemptive arrival home: “When we arrive, sons and daughters / We’ll make our homes on the water... Sons and daughters / We will arise from the bunkers.” And then the closing refrain of the song goes, “Hear all the bombs fade away.” The main idea of this song, like the dual theme of war and home that stretches across The King is Dead, seems analogous to the turnings of the season. There’s a hopeful confidence that a January hymn will always give way to a June hymn, that a season of war will inevitably turn to a season of sons and daughters. And it’s this hope in the trajectory towards home, arriving out of the dark of the end-times into the light, that makes the toast in “Don’t Carry it All” a very apt one indeed: “So raise a glass to turnings of the season / And watch it as it arcs towards the sun.”
- Ben Dixon