Let me get this out of the way right now. The Decemberists are one of my absolute favourite bands to come out of this young century.
I got into the Portland-based indie folk five-piece right around the time that they were prepping to release their third album, the very excellent “Picaresque”, in 2005. Incidentally, that album would ultimately become their final release as a true indie band, given that they signed to Columbia near the end of that same year. Any fears that they would sell out, though, were immediately dispelled when their debut album on the major label was released. Indeed, I’m sure their fans breathed a sigh of relief (as I did) while listening to the three part title track inspired by a Japanese folk tale and the twelve minute prog-folk-rocker that riffed on the themes from a Shakespeare play. They then followed that up with an album that was originally meant to be staged as a musical but was ultimately found impossible to mount.
Two years later, in the first few days of 2011, we saw Colin Meloy and the group release what is possibly their most accessible album to date and two weeks later it incredibly found its way at the top of the U.S. album charts. “The king is dead” is different from the albums that came before it in that it feels more singular in sound, taking for its focus a healthy steeping in Americana and the American folk traditions. Meloy has said that he had the band R.E.M. at the front of mind while writing the material. In fact, Peter Buck makes several appearances on the album, along with singer/songwriter Gillian Welch.
Neither of these appear on our track for today, the album’s penultimate track, “This is why we fight”, but that doesn’t mean their presence isn’t felt. It rocks a little harder than most of the other songs on the album, a driving drum beat pushing the thing forward, holding at arms length the opposing guitars, on the one side dark and foreboding and the other hopeful and jangly, and what sounds like harmonicas, though oddly distorted, pushing its sad, sad agenda. And of course, I can’t speak about The Decemberists without mentioning the lyrics, though here Meloy’s words are less esoteric and doesn’t necessarily have you reaching for the dictionary as often. Instead, he lists the many reasons why it may be necessary to take up arms, leaving lots of room to interpret how literal to take things.
“This is why
Why we fight
Why we lie awake
This is why
This is why we fight
And when we die
We will die
With our arms unbound”
Even in the video, the teens living out a “Lord of the flies” existence in a post-apocalyptic world, we see the build up and the “why” of the fight but it all goes to black before the two sides come blows, leaving the terms of the conflict up to the imagination. Pure awesome.
For the rest of the Best tunes of 2011 list, click here.