I’m a Decemberists fan from way, way back. Little known fact: Colin Meloy, the lead singer, used to live in Missoula, Montana, around the same time I did, playing in an alt-country band called Tarkio. On The Decemberists’ 2001 debut EP, Five Songs, there’s an “Apology Song” about Meloy accidentally allowing a friend’s bike to be stolen from in front of the Orange Street Food Farm. I used to shop there!
Now Meloy lives in Portland, Oregon, where I kind of wish I lived. But I’ve been following the band ever since those early days and have seen them live a number of times. (They’re one of the best live acts on the planet.)
The band’s general trajectory has been toward more and more ambition and complexity. In my humble opinion, they hit just the right balance on 2006’s The Crane Wife, a story-cycle album that ranks as one of my all-time favorites.
But it’s pretty widely agreed that the band has gone somewhat overboard recently, leading to 2009’s bloated, bombastic The Hazards of Love, where it was like, damn, sometimes I don’t want to have to read Cliffs notes and a thesaurus just to figure out WTF is coming out of my speakers!
Happily, the band seems to feel the same way, as they have just released what can only be characterized as a palette-cleanser: The King Is Dead, a tight, 40-minute set of straightforward folk-rock songs. No baroque themes or overarching narrative, just good, catchy tunes. (Still plenty of words and phrases you’ll have to look up on Google, but hey, he is what he is.)
This song — featuring harmonies from Gillian Welch and rhythm guitar from R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck — is called “Down By the River.”