Following 2009’s foray into concept album territory, with the ill-advised country-rock opera of The Hazards Of Love, Portland’s Decemberists have returned to the folky blueprint that made them almost household names (in the cool indie households, anyway) with 2006’s The Crane Wife, even roping Gillian Welch and David Rawlings in on vocals and persuading Peter Buck to add some jangly guitar on three tracks on this, their sixth album. Indeed, the REM influence is strong, with the ultra-infectious ‘Calamity Song’ coming across like an out-take from Reckoning, although Colin Meloy’s vocals are far clearer than Michael Stipe’s on that album. But to dismiss The Decemberists as a Stipe tribute act would be unfair: there are elements of The Band, Gram Parsons and even Wilco at their less obtuse thrown into this rootsy mix, while the twin gods of Dylan and Young raise their gnarly heads on occasion as well.
If anything, they’ve gone uber-purist on us, with banjo, fiddle, harmonica and acoustic guitar the primary influeunces, from the torch and twang of ‘Rise To Me’ to the tentative, pastoral ‘January Hymn’, the fiddle-driven ‘All Arise’ to the trad. stylings of ‘Rox In the Box’, which bleeds into ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ for its final third.
Album highlight and lead track, ‘Don’t Carry It All’ begins like a folky version of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s ‘Gold Lion’, with harmonica instead of squalling guitars, before Meloy’s wordy songsmithery comes to the fore on a mid-tempo call to arms. Meloy knows his way round a simile, and has never been shy of painting dramatic pictures with his evocative lyrics, sometimes to the detriment of the overall catchiness, but this time around the band have formed an almost perfect marriage of substance and style. Other high points include the Neil Young-ish single, ‘Down By The Water’ (not a cover, incidentally), the winsome and yearning ‘June Hymn’ and the epic, anthemic ‘This Is Why We Fight’.
The Decemberists have reclaimed their place in the pantheon of great American roots acts. The King Is Dead? Long live the king.