The Decemberists
Band Rating: 3

  • Castaways And Cutouts
  • Her Majesty
  • 5 Songs
  • The Tain
  • Picaresque
  • The Crane Wife
  • The Hazards Of Love
  • The King Is Dead

    Castaways And Cutouts (2002)
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 13

    The brainchild of erstwhile country artist Colin Meloy, the Decemberists are one of the more promising indie outfits to come along in quite some time, specializing in an idiosyncratic brand of folk rock that also manages to encompass everything from aspects of catchy pop to the occasional hard rock flourish.

    While the band is a five piece ensemble the Decemberists are indisputably Meloy's group, as he handles all of the songwriting responsibilities in addition to lead vocals. Meloy's history may not seem terribly conducive toward forming a folk rock band; as alluded to, he first tried his hand at country rock, while his past accomplishments include earning a degree in creative writing. Nevertheless Meloy thrives in this folk rock context, and his work is if anything enriched by these prior pursuits.

    Meloy's creative writing past is heavily reflected on the Decemberists' debut. While his attempts at erudition sometimes come across as forced or pretentious, in the long run his highly articulate, well versed lyrical prowess is a major asset, resulting in compelling narratives and witty coruscations. While much of his focus is clearly devoted toward the album's melodies the lyrics are never an afterthought, as Meloy weaves intricate tales that manage to brilliantly complement the music.

    The Decemberists are certainly rather eccentric in some of their behaviors, as they've perpetrated such bizarre acts as donning authentic-looking garb of the revolutionaries from which they derive their name during their concerts, but Meloy and company, despite frequent forays into black comedy, can be quite serious as well. As the album's title suggests much of Castaways And Cutouts revolves around the pathos of society's pariahs, exploring a spectrum of disenfranchised unfortunates ranging from abused prostitutes to neglected soldiers; it's hard, however, to think of the CD as a concept album given that these are areas that the band would return to throughout the entirety of their careers.

    Even at this early stage of his development as a rock artist Meloy's songwriting is exceptional; there is a modicum of filler, as tracks like Cocoon and Grace Cathedral Hill, while pretty, are somewhat bland, but even these lesser numbers are eminently worthwhile and more than justify their inclusion on the album.

    Most of the remaining songs are uniformly brilliant, from the haunting beauty of the despairing opener Leslie Anne Levine to the eloquently subdued Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect. July, July! is actually rather poppy in nature, with a stellar catchy melody and an accelerated speed that makes for a refreshing change after the more deliberate pace of the previous two tracks.

    A Cautionary Song adroitly combines a dark subject matter with an incongruous musical backdrop and a sly edge to Meloy's vocal delivery, while Odalisque is a major highlight, a multipart epic that alternates between verses of sublime catharsis and passages suffused with a sense of sneering menace.

    The Legionnaire's Lament is another standout track, boasting an exceptional melody, another effective musical/lyrical contrast and dexterous wordplay that acts as a showcase for the efforts and toil that earned Meloy his creative writing degree.

    Clementine is another lesser effort but still quite pretty, while California One/Youth And Beauty Brigade, two songs seemingly arbitrarily juxtaposed together, is an impressive suite sporting strong melodies and intelligent lyrics.

    Overall Castaways And Cutouts is a highly auspicious debut, a creative blend of folk rock and an indie sensibility animated by Meloy's intelligent songwriting and impeccable showmanship. Gifted as both a singer and songwriter, Meloy certainly seems poised for greatness, while his fellow members brilliantly realize his creative musical visions. The resulting product is an excellent album by any standards, filled with memorable melodies and an array of narrative tableaus that are as striking as they are deeply rewarding.

    Her Majesty (2003)
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 13

    While Her Majesty, the Decemberists' sophomore effort, may lack the immediate impact of their stellar debut, it ultimately proves to be just as gripping and rewarding as its brilliant predecessor.

    Truth be told, even though it was widely heralded as a comparatively challenging aural experience Her Majesty is not altogether dissimilar to Castaways And Cutouts; on the contrary, the album tends to adhere rather closely to the blueprints of the band's first outing, making for a listen that's markedly reminiscent of the Decemberists' debut.

    Thus these accusations of inaccessibility are largely derived from the CD's relative subtlety; the whimsical Billy Liar can admittedly scarcely be called 'subtle,' but for the most part the album eschews the direct approach assumed by the group's first venture in favor of a more restrained sensibility, leading to the minimalism of tracks like The Gymnast, High Above The Ground and the spare arrangements of numbers like the opener Shanty For The Arethusa.

    Regardless of any disparities between the creative modalities of Her Majesty and the group's previous outing, both albums share the superb songwriting of Colin Meloy, and thankfully in no ways have the gifted frontman's talents diminished since last year's opus.

    Just as Leslie Anne Levine was the ideal opener for Castaways And Cutouts, Her Majesty makes comparably effective usage of the album's sequencing by beginning with Shanty For Arethusa, a track that sustains a sense of subtle menace throughout despite the instant catchiness of Meloy's vocal melodies.

    Billy Liar, a light, bouncy pop song, certainly seems incongruous amidst the more ambitious works on the album, but one's eventual appreciation of its infectious charm reveal a track that eminently merits its place on the album despite the oddity of its tone when taken in the context of the remainder of the CD.

    Los Angeles, I'm Yours is a disarmingly sincere number, a rarity for the customarily sardonic Meloy, while The Gymnast, High Above The Ground is an epic, deeply moving anthem with a rather pronounced resemblance to the works of Belle And Sebastian (whose influence can also be perceived on a number of other Decemberists tracks). Meloy adroitly blends his rich storytelling with the low keyed yet brilliantly crafted melody making for a truly memorable experience that's certainly one of the band's greatest achievements.

    The Bachelor And The Bride is a haunting number with its recurring, sinister vow to 'strip you bare,' while Song For Myla Goldberg provides something of a respite by offering some much needed lighter fare. The Soldiering Life takes an unorthodox view of the military, while Red Right Ankle is a beautiful number aided by the deceptive simplicity of its music and lyrics.

    The Chimbley Sweep is extremely catchy, with an unforgettable melody ensuring that the track never suffers despite its relative lack of pretensions, I Was Meant For The Stage is bewitching and features a chaotic coda that actually works (a rarity in the self-indulgent world of indie rock) and As I Rise, while not a highlight, is the perfect note to end the album on.

    Thus Her Majesty is a brilliant successor to the band's highly auspicious debut, filled with fantastic melodies and intelligent lyrics. Meloy can adroitly shift from ambitious storytelling to whimsical interludes to straightforward rock lyrics with the utmost fluidity, never leading to a loss of focus or sense of awkwardness. While the album's less direct approach renders it somewhat less immediately gratifying for casual listeners, it also serves to differentiate it from its predecessor, establishing a unique identity for the CD as a whole. I'd call that a reasonable sacrifice and a sagacious decision, as the album marries the highly accomplished songwriting, lyrical intelligence and idiosyncratic image of the band to a more restrained dynamic that only serves to make the songs that much more rich and compelling.

    5 Songs (2003)
    Page Rating: 8
    Overall Rating: 11

    EPs have always had a certain stigma attached to them, and justifiably so. Typically they're fan-bait designed to educe some extra cash from a devoted fan-base or hype an upcoming album proper.

    Occasionally there'll be a remarkable EP that manages to match a classic album despite its brevity, a concise vision of rock and roll excellence like The Fall's Slates or XTC's (in the guise of the Dukes Of Stratusfear) 25 'O Clock.

    Fortunately the Decemberists were above a cheap marketing ploy or quick cash-in like the former, but in no way is 5 Songs a work of length transcending genius; rather, it's simply a very solid, enjoyable outing in the band's usual style.

    Meloy is very reliable when it comes to songwriting, and there are few overtly bad, or even mediocre, songs he's crafted. The first two Decemberists albums were bereft of anything that could be even remotely construed as qualitatively offensive, with nearly every number having a trait that distinguished it from its brethren to permit it to shine, if only a little.

    Thus the tracks on 5 Songs, while not representative of the zenith of the band's capabilities, are uniformly entertaining, with strong melodies and intelligent lyrics. No songs rise to the height of The Odalisque or The Legionnaire's Lament, but they're still on par with the vast majority of tracks that appeared on Castaways And Cutouts and Her Majesty.

    When it comes to artists as consistent as Meloy it's difficult to makes bad songs; as long as he imbues each track with the band's distinct charm then even less inspired efforts will invariably turn out well. Meloy has a rare facility for generating catchy melodies, and when coupled with his knack for clever lyrics it becomes clear why he's able to produce an EP's worth of quality material in the interim between his more ambitious projects.

    Thus the tracks on 5 Songs (which is actually six songs, as apparently Meloy adheres to the Traveling Wilbury's school of misleading album titles) would fit in comfortably on any Decemberists album without appearing obtrusive or unworthy, but rather of a similar caliber to the group's usual output. Neither an EP nor an album requires a true classic to be worthwhile, and thus 5 Songs is an eminently worthy affair, an entertaining diversion for any fan of the band. Six quality Decemberists songs is not something to be dismissed or discounted, ergo the EP can be recommended without reservation to anyone who enjoys high quality contemporary indie music.

    As for the tracks themselves, Meloy is, as always, able to evoke a potent sense of pathos, as exhibited on numbers like My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist, though I'm not inclined to grieve for the fate of a stolen bicycle as on Apology Song, an amusing diversion that displays Meloy's healthy capacity to poke fun at himself.

    Oceanside is another demonstration of Meloy's flair for melodies, while Shiny manages to rock despite its acoustic-only status (then again, the vast majority of Tommy is purely acoustic and few albums rock to the degree of that Who classic). Angel, Won't You Call Me? is quite charming, while I Don't Mind is the Decemberists by numbers yet the band's stunning formula invariably transfigures even lesser efforts into quality material.

    Thus length is the only thing that 5 Songs has working against it, an EP too brief to scale the heights of their prior output. For a Decemberists fan that should hardly constitute an insurmountable obstacle, meaning that there's no excuse for a fan of Meloy's work not to own this well-crafted product.

    The Tain (2004)
    Page Rating: 8
    Overall Rating: 11

    Perhaps the Decemberists are a less adventurous indie outfit than one would initially surmise; for any ambitious, intellectual band, particularly one that already harbors art-rock tendencies like Meloy and company, releasing a concept album is an inevitability.

    Nevertheless, when the time for crafting a concept album finally came, the Decemberists confined their epic tale to a twenty-minute EP rather than braving the potential commercial repercussions of embarking upon such a risky venture as a full length equivalent.

    A concept album could indeed prove commercially deleterious for the band, so instead we receive a concept EP, an epic story whittled down until all that's presented is the bare outline of a narrative.

    Incidentally, I was being facetious when it came to my criticism of Meloy's decision; I have no problem with the Decmebrists abstaining from releasing a full length concept album, especially if their EP equivalent is strong, and fortunately The Tain is quite strong indeed.

    As expected from Meloy, The Tain is a tenebrous, violent story, cryptically filtered through a minimal amount of dialogue. The tale is indeed compelling, but what's more important is that the music is topnotch as well.

    The Tain is by far the heaviest hour of the band, as much of the music is distorted, brutal hard rock complete with heavy riffs and furious jamming. This seems antithetical to the band's usual MO, but in the context of this tale it works quite well, adroitly complementing the similarly savage lyrics.

    There's another first on The Tain, and that's Meloy, for the first time in the group's history, delegating songwriting responsibilities to another member, however briefly.

    Predictably enough, out of the V parts of The Tain Meloy pens parts I, II, III and V; IV, however, is handled by drummer Rachel Blumberg, who also assumes the role of lead vocalist for the duration of her chapter. Blumberg proves to be more than up to the task, as her section proves comparably compelling to the rest of the suite.

    The Tain is also the closest the Decemberists came to producing progressive rock. The interlocking, overlapping and alternating sections, along with the heaviness of the instrumentation, recalls early King Crimson, and the album's conceptual status reaffirms this assertion. While it's debatable if the final product can truly be called prog rock, the very notion of a flirtation with the genre is a testament to the band's willingness to experiment and take risks on this outing.

    Thus The Tain, despite its brevity, is quite an impressive achievement, and a glimpse at the Decemberists trying something new. The suite remains engaging throughout, never betraying signs of stagnation or padding. While it might seem like a novelty at first, the EP is sufficiently well crafted that it can stand alone as a meticulously constructed, well performed artistic statement, worthwhile for far more than the simple shock value of witnessing the Decemberists playing heavy metal.

    While The Tain may not rank up there with the band's best work, it's certainly one of the more striking moments in the band's catalogue, and is indispensable for any fan of Meloy and company. Few bands can so thoroughly reinvent themselves yet retain their artistic voice; on The Tain the Decemberists manage this feat, and the resulting product is a highly rewarding listening experience.

    Picaresque (2005)
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 13

    While the Decemberists certainly adhere to a certain set formula, it's a formula that manages to differentiate them from nearly every other rock outfit on the indie scene; furthermore Meloy and company continue to refine their approach with each passing album, and by now have honed their unique dynamic to near perfection.

    Picaresque is, quite likely, the band's most accessible album to date, both musically and lyrically; the tales and images that Meloy's verses conjure are often far more recognizable to the average listener, as not every track is steeped in obscure historical lore as had so often been the case on the group's previous affairs. Some of the tracks are even grounded in an increasingly modern context; myriad numbers still conform to the band's signature historical storytelling style, but many, like the rollicking The Sporting Life, prove far more easy for casual listeners to relate to.

    As far as the music is concerned, tracks like the infectious, albeit cynical, anthem 16 Military Wives depicts the band fully embracing pop; Meloy had always harbored poppy tendencies, but never before had the Decemberists produced such a straightforwardly catchy, radio-friendly single. Rather than being indicative of a sellout, the song simply demonstrates to what degree Meloy's songwriting acumen had progressed over the last several years; while I would have objected to an album solely composed of such immediate pop rockers, when placed in the context of a largely traditional Decemberists albums it simply serves as a pleasantly surprising, eminently enjoyable diversion.

    Being the band's most accessible album doesn't mean that Picaresque is the Decemberists' finest hour; few of the CD's highlights reach the caliber of The Odalisque or The Gymnast, High Above The Ground, while numbers like The Bagman's Gambit are somewhat nondescript by the group's standards. Nevertheless Picaresque is still a great showing for the band, filled with memorable songs, intelligent lyrics and a plethora of creative hooks.

    The opener, The Infanta, is a driving pop rocker centered around Meloy's impeccable vocal melodies, while We Both Go Down Together features an irresistible hook in the, 'oh my love, my love,' refrain. Eli, The Barrow Boy is a melancholy, mournful number evoking a stirring sense of pathos in the best tradition of the band, while The Sporting Life dilutes the pervasively bleak atmosphere of the album with a slight but entertaining anecdote.

    The Bagman's Gambit, as alluded to earlier, is the Decemberists at their most generic, but even so its rousing crescendo in the, 'no they cannot catch me now,' passage still musters at least a modicum of potency thanks to Meloy's topnotch vocal delivery and showmanship.

    From My Own True Love (Lost At Sea) is profoundly moving and highly melodic, while the aforementioned 16 Military Wives is the band at their catchiest, an unforgettable pop song that still manages to retain the group's idiosyncratic personality and identity.

    The Engine Driver is another achingly gorgeous, despairing confession, an emotionally transparent ballad that's striking in both its beauty emotional resonance, while On The Bus Mall is lesser Decemberists but still quite enjoyable.

    The Mariner's Revenge Song is catchy bloodlust at its finest, a saga of violent retribution set to a stellar melody that adroitly complements the sadistic agenda of the protagonist, while Of Angels And Angles is a pretty, sedate ballad that functions well as a closer.

    Thus Picaresque is another winner from the Decemberists, a rewarding and entertaining listen that encapsulates all of the band's strengths and adapts them to a more accessible context. The increased accessibility may not ameliorate the proceedings, but it certainly doesn't compromise the quality of the album, and was a natural course of action for a group attempting to reach a larger fan-base, a feat that they apparently accomplished given that Meloy and company were promptly signed to a major label in the wake of the CD's release.

    The Crane Wife (2006)
    Page Rating: 9
    Overall Rating: 12

    The Crane Wife, the Decemberists' major label debut, marks something of a departure for the band that's accompanied by an unfortunate loss of identity. On this go-round the band attempt to expand their core sound, resulting in something of a betrayal of their fundamental persona and the distinct personality and charm that it imbued into all of their output.

    This isn't a matter of selling out, but rather a case of misguided progression; the group were aspiring to broaden their horizons, a risky gambit that in no way denotes a concession to a more mainstream crowd. Regrettably, however, the negatives inherent to this expansion outweigh the positives, as Meloy and company often seem at a loss as to how best to effect this transformation, leading to alternating desultory explorations or, sometimes, sheer blandness.

    Without their idiosyncratic identity the appeal of the Decemberists is immeasurably diminished; they can still fall back on their instrumental chops and Meloy's knack for strong songwriting, but even the latter department is compromised in the process as part of his compositional strength has always stemmed from the charmingly anachronistic foundations he builds his songs upon. Without this base even Meloy's songwriting sometimes falters, lacking the unique edge that informed even his lesser opuses and spurred him on to greater heights.

    It's highly doubtful that the record label wanted the Decemberists to adjust their style in such a drastic fashion, as one would assume that even the studio executives recognize the limited, niche appeal of the band, never imagining that a hasty sonic makeover would lead to a commercial breakthrough. Thus it's Meloy's ambition that guides his new course for the band, an admirable gesture in theory but one that, as least to this point, hasn't yielded terribly impressive results.

    This isn't always the case, as there are certainly a handful major artistic triumphs scattered throughout the album. The Island, a three part suite, takes the progressive rock tendencies exhibited on The Tain even further. Some of the keyboard work on The Landlord's Daughter portion sounds as if it's been directly lifted from Keith Emerson, while other sections of the multipart epic flirt with heavy metal (Come And See) and sneeringly menacing tones (You'll Not Feel The Drowning), making for an idiosyncratic cornucopia of disparate styles.

    It's generally the material that adheres most closely to the band's old sound that works the best, however, from the irresistible pop of Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then) and Summersong to the inspired folk rock of the three part title track.

    Tracks like The Perfect Crime are appropriately moody, but they simply lack the charm and creativity that used to come naturally to the band. Elsewhere even when they religiously cling to their old paradigm things don't always work out that well, like on the uninspired, vicious Shankill Butchers, a track with pretensions toward crafting an ominous, haunting tale that simply come across as feeble and prosaic.

    This isn't to denigrate the album too much, however; most of the tracks turn out quite well, and by and large The Crane Wife is an excellent product. The CD is the weakest full length Decemberists outing, but that's hardly a damning slight given the high quality of their prior output.

    The Crane Wife is supposedly based upon an obscure Japanese folk tale, though knowledge of the story is hardly a prerequisite for enjoying the album (if that isn't just a put-on altogether). The CD never feels like a concept album, however, a feeling that's compounded by the fact that the Decemberists' experimentation dispels any opportunity for a unified feel.

    Lacking a unified feel is one thing, but feeling scattered and aimless is a far more grievous fault. Fortunately, despite Meloy's attempts to tackle new ground, The Crane Wife rarely feels unfocused, save for a few instances of sonic meandering.

    Thus the album can be applauded for its lofty ambitions that culminate in two stunning epics, The Island and The Crane Wife 1 & 2, even if the risks it takes don't always lead to such impressive results. The CD is indeed somewhat erratic, but between brilliant tracks like the two ten minute plus behemoths, Yankee Bayonet, Summersong and other such numbers The Crane Wife is still an excellent album, and in the future Meloy's attempts at expanding the group's sound may lead to superior, more inspired material.

    The Hazards Of Love (2009)
    Page Rating: 10
    Overall Rating: 13

    The Decemberists' musical identity has proven to be remarkably mutable over the course of their brief history, with their oeuvre encompassing everything from elements of folk to pop to heavy metal to country to progressive rock. These genre shifts have never felt forced or unnatural; on the contrary, each stylistic overhaul has felt like an organic extension of the band's creative core.

    The Crane Wife had already demonstrated the band's affinity for progressive rock, but The Hazards Of Love takes what was an idle flirtation with the genre into a full adoption of the much maligned musical form. On a superficial level this indicates the presence of Keith Emmerson-style keyboards and increasingly complex arrangements, but on a much deeper level The Hazards Of Love marks the first time that Colin Meloy and company have truly embraced the fundamental ethos and philosophy of the prog-rock genre.

    This progressive reinvention most noticeably manifests itself in the form of the album's status as an unabashed rock opera, and with its fantasy overtones and overarching mysticism The Hazards Of Love is clearly more akin to The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway than Tommy.

    This isn't the first time that The Decemberists have undertaken an endeavor of this nature; Meloy has always fancied himself a writer, frequently weaving tales through the medium of his lyrics. In the past, however, these narratives have been confined to individual songs or, in the case of The Tain, an EP. Thus it wasn't until The Hazards Of Love that the band attempted a full-length concept album of this nature, resulting in a final product that's considerably more ambitious and fleshed out than the diminutive The Tain and its shorter brethren.

    As I'd alluded to, The Decemberists have assumed a plethora of different creative voices through their genre experimentations. Whereas one might surmise that a full foray into the realm of prog rock would limit this artistic palette, it's the opposite that holds true, as The Hazards Of Love depicts the band cycling through a wide array of disparate styles.

    Thus The Decemberists tackle everything from gentle balladry (Isn't It A Lovely Night?) to stately soundscapes (Prelude), often allowing vastly different genres to coexist in a single track (as exemplified by the marriage of folk and hard rock on The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid). This injects a healthy measure of diversity into the affair, which plays an integral part in sustaining the listener's interest for the duration of the rock opera.

    From a musical perspective, The Hazards Of Love is just as accomplished an outing as the band's previous work, boasting myriad stellar melodies. The include the folk rock of The Hazards Of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle The Thistles Undone), complete with a memorable refrain, the catchiness of which isn't compromised by its long-windedness. Similarly The Rake's Song is another worthy offering, and the track's subtle menace doesn't in any way dilute the potency of its clever hooks.

    Surprisingly the album's greatest liabilities lie in the lyrical department. Many of the lyrics are pretentious and awkward, the kind of clumsy, infelicitous poetry that Meloy had traditionally deftly evaded in his verse. The severity of this shortcoming is compounded by the album's status as a rock opera, an avenue in which the importance of the lyrics is invariably intensely magnified.

    Not all of the lyrics are bad, but it's disappointing that what should be Meloy's finest hour as a lyricist is mired in unnatural constructions and poetic mediocrity. It's clear that Meloy is trying far too hard to be eloquent and erudite, which simply results in forced, jumbled wordplay.

    Despite this deficiency, however, the story remains absorbing for the album's duration. This isn't due to any spectacular plot or engaging characters; the bleak fairytale premise is more generic than timeless and little of note transpires beyond the story's bare-bones framework.

    Nevertheless when coupled with the album's superb melodies the story, no matter how rudimentary, does become involving, to the point that even while apathetic about the protagonists and unconcerned about their fates I found the final track, The Hazards Of Love 4 (The Drowned) genuinely moving. Admittedly this can be attributed to the caliber of the music and Meloy's adroit performance as opposed to the quality of the storytelling, but even in this situation the lyrics still play their part, enough so that I always pay close attention to them when listening to the album.

    Thus The Hazards Of Love is another great album from The Decemberists and a successful first effort at penning a rock opera. Meloy remains one of the top songwriters of his generation, and even when his lyrics stumble his melodies can always be counted on to deliver. While not on the level of Quadrophenia, or The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway for that matter, The Hazards Of Love is still a worthy new addition to the seemingly endless vaults of rock operas, providing a rich experience that's highly enjoyable whether one listens to it as a narrative or simply as a collection of high quality rock songs.

    The King Is Dead (2011)
    Page Rating: 7
    Overall Rating: 10

    At first glance, the brief history of The Decemberists has been less a case of progression than mutation. After reveling in British motifs for their first three efforts, the band embraced progressive rock on The Crane Wife, a movement that culminated in the ambitious rock opera The Hazards Of Love.

    On closer inspection, however, one can see the roots of the prog-rock shift in the EP The Tain. In that regard, while Colin Meloy and company's latest transformation may seem even more mystifying at first, it's not quite as unpredictable as many would have you believe.

    On The King Is Dead, Meloy has finally fully eschewed the trappings of British elements in favor of reclaiming his own roots. The album marks the first time that he's adopted Americana as his style of choice, a change accompanied by an influx of country music and a pronounced affinity for R.E.M.

    This change may seem inexplicable, but one must keep in mind that Meloy dabbled in country music before founding The Decemberists. Thus what may seem like a radical reinvention is in fact a homecoming of sorts, one that he certainly sounds comfortable with for the duration of the album.

    The Stipe-idolizing aspect may sound farfetched at first, but there are numerous tracks that owe a great deal to R.E.M.'s oeuvre, a line of thinking corroborated by the fact that Peter Buck himself plays guitar on several tracks.

    As far as the new era of The Decemberists is concerned, the final major shift is Meloy's rebellion against the prog-rock complexity of his last few opuses. There's been a transparent simplification as far as both arrangements and lyrics are concerned, and Meloy himself has commented on the difficulty of adhering to this newfound self-imposed restraint.

    Thus what we're dealing with is a very different incarnation of The Decemberists from anything we've encountered before. Unfortunately, it's also a vastly inferior form of the group, thanks in large part to these differences in the band's approach.

    In the past it may have sounded as if Meloy was simply an incorrigible Anglophile, fetishizing British history and culture. This is far from the truth, however. What Meloy had fashioned was a truly unique artistic voice, a rich sound that integrated his British influences with his own idiosyncratic persona and considerable songwriting acumen. It was far more than a novelty or gimmick, and in essence it became the identity of the band itself.

    This was a truly original style, and in creating it The Decemberists owed a debt to nothing and no one. It wasn't immature hero-worship, reckless plagiarism or a case of growing pains that, with time, the group would grow out of. It wasn't an obstacle that the band needed to conquer if they were to succeed. Somehow, however, Meloy lost sight of this fact, and consequently the Decemberists' new direction imperils the very heart of the band.

    Early in the band's career, whenever Meloy faltered as a songwriter his efforts were redeemed by the quirky charm of the group's persona. Without this disarmingly distinctive identity, lesser tracks often end up coming across as bland or nondescript, complaints that would have been unthinkable a mere few years ago.

    This is exacerbated by the fact that The King Is Dead is not Meloy's finest hour in the songwriting department. Despite his history as a country performer, his slices of Americana are all too frequently undermined by pleasant but generic melodies, and while Meloy may aspire to simplicity on the album that doesn't necessarily make it a good thing.

    A song like the opener Don't Carry It All may sound warm and inviting, but it also has precious little to distinguish it from the work of any other competent country-rock outfit. By sacrificing their signature sound The Decemberists have largely become just-another-indie-group, and thus when they're not at their best as far as lyrics and melodies are concerned, there's precious little call for them at all.

    Fortunately Meloy has penned a handful of classics as well. Rox In The Box boasts an immensely catchy tune, with deft wordplay and an up-tempo beat that's quite welcome on a predominantly down-tempo album. The album's first single, Down By The Water, is a moody and engaging song, and the entrancing vocal duet enhances an already strong number. The stirring This Is Why We Fight is also a definite highlight, a dark track that rocks more than any other song on the album.

    None of the tracks on The King Is Dead are overtly bad, but a distressing number of them feel like The-Decemberists-by-numbers, or, even worse, they don't feel like the Decemberists at all. While I'd hesitate before accusing the band of selling out, a great many of the songs would fit comfortably on a mainstream radio station, lacking either the intelligence or esotericism I usually associate with the band. Meloy is still far too gifted a songwriter to deliver a product bereft of strong numbers, but without the safety net of the classic Decemberists sound he's forced himself into a position where, if he's not at his absolute best as a composer, he's doomed to failure.