The Decemberists’ The King Is Dead and the End of the Americana CrazeJanuary 17th, 2021
Editor’s Notes: Consequence has finally been around long enough that so many of the new albums that originally turned us on to music are now celebrating their first milestone anniversaries. As we begin to reflect on these records, you can catch our updated assessments here.
The first time I heard Mumford & Sons was at the 37th Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I was 14, had just finished middle school, and was in a band that played shitty covers of Audioslave and Death Cab for Cutie in our drummer’s basement. I wasn’t exactly a music doyen, but I remember everyone around me, even my parents — Telluride had become something of a family pastime — were impressed by the set. There was something undeniably endearing about Marcus Mumford’s gravelly baritone, his black vest (soon to become a staple), and his kickdrum-stomping earnestness.
In retrospect, I think part of the thrill came from the shared feeling in the crowd — a palpable energy, a jejune sense of serendipity — that we were witnessing something being born. It was 2010, a new decade. Indie music at the time (or at least the kind that tweens like me listened to) was dominated by folk-inflected, moody songwriters like Iron & Wine, Conor Oberst, and The Tallest Man on Earth. Watching Mumford & Sons spin bright-eyed, stadium-filling pop out of Irish reels and shimmering mandolin seemed like the parting of a tide, an open door.
And what did follow was an Americana craze — that ill-defined, mostly vacuous idea of genre — led by jangly folk troupes like The Avett Brothers, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, and The Lumineers. Mumford & Sons’ debut would eventually peak at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and sell over three million copies. The vogue seemed all-encompassing and irrevocable; in Colorado, it felt like every band was suddenly made up of bearded white guys blending kickdrum and banjo, fedora and fiddle.
Of the various records that came out during that period, only The Decemberists’ The King Is Dead (2011) remains indelible in my mind — or, perhaps, the least forgettable. This week, it celebrated its 10th anniversary. In revisiting it, I bring up Mumford & Sons only because, where their Telluride set seemed like a beginning to me, The King Is Dead resembles an ending, a coda to a musical phenomenon that lived a few glorious years before swiftly sputtering into a hokey relic, a flicker in the zeitgeist.
By the time The King Is Dead came out, The Decemberists had already spent the good part of a decade developing one of the strangest and most brazenly geeky careers (remember Colin Meloy’s sideburns?), earning them a spot in the pantheons of indie music arbiters and high school thespians alike. Their oeuvre is still rightly defined by Picaresque (2005) and The Crane Wife (2006), concept albums that mix literary bravura and tongue-in-cheek pedantry with the tale-spinning whimsy of the British folk revival. When was the last time you heard circa-10-minute ballads about man-eating whales, avian wives, or The Tempest that were so epic?
This urge for theatrical, fabulist world-building climaxed with The Hazards of Love (2009), a folk-rock opera that Consequence of Sound described as “so involved you need a Playbill to follow it.” Shape-shifting forest creatures, murderous rakes (a recurring theme for Meloy), and poetic drownings (also recurring) interweave into a bewildering fairy tale of supernatural love. It was The Decemberists both par excellence and ad nauseum, which makes it all the more surprising that they followed it up two years later with The King Is Dead — their least Decemberists-y album and, perhaps, also one of their best.
Pitchfork, reviewing The King Is Dead, wrote that the album’s “concept… is that there is no concept.” But this is only partly true. While the album lacks a thematic structure, there is an aesthetic one, a historical one: the American folk and roots tradition, that dubious scaffolding of “Americana.” Which is to say, the concept undergirding The King Is Dead is not so much the content of the songs — largely gone are the rakes, the nautical escapades, the sorrowful prostitutes and criminals — but songwriting itself.
The album begins with a gesture: harmonica and acoustic guitar, honeyed harmonies, a chorus that hinges on the line, “Let the yoke fall from our shoulders.” “Don’t Carry It All” is currently the band’s most-streamed song on Spotify, and it is easy to see why. It is welcoming, load-lightening, and immensely catchy. The backing vocals of bluegrass powerhouses Gillian Welch and David Rawlings — one of the record’s defining features — and the helmsmanship of R.E.M.’s Peter Buck both fuel the sense that the album is more a feat of genre than anything else.
Many of the album’s best tracks feel like this, achievements of mimesis rather than novelty. But they are achievements nonetheless, from the Appalachian twang of “Rox in the Box” to the honky-tonk “All Arise” and the slightest intimations in “Rise to Me” of The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and “Sway” themselves part of an album that invoked the American country and blues tradition.
Above all, the beauty of The King Is Dead lies in … well, its beauty. Meloy and his outfit always had a knack, beneath their nerd-lore trappings, for arrangement, melody, and harmony — that backbone of traditional music. Those strengths are especially evident here, but on no other track do they more exquisitely coalesce than “June Hymn”, the album’s gorgeous paragon and one of the band’s best songs: the soft harmonica and descending guitar, the delicate accordion, Welch and Rawlings’ wistful harmonies, the ethereal key strokes that fall over the second chorus like rain, and the transcendent bridge that reminds us Meloy’s prowess for lyricism and characterization has been present all along. “Years from now when this old light/ Isn’t ambling anymore/ Will I bring myself to write/ ‘I give my best to Springville Hill,’” he sings. It’s an homage to summer, to Meloy’s home in Oregon, but above all, to music’s ability to remember, to the reverie and nostalgia at the heart of folk.
Looking back, one reason The King Is Dead might feel like an ending is the fact that The Decemberists took a four-year hiatus soon after releasing it. Meloy quashed the idea that the decision was a breakup, but at the time, I remember thinking The Decemberists were done — they had quit while they were ahead, making their first chart-topping album, with “Down by the Water” regularly looping on the radio.
But music was changing, too, or at least it seemed to be. The same month that The King Is Dead came out, Bright Eyes released their own apparent swan song, The People’s Key, a glossy record that blatantly did away with any Americana accoutrements and would be their last until 2019. A few months later, Bon Iver’s eponymous sophomore album similarly eschewed rustic melancholy for intricate electric guitar that crumbled under tremulous saxophones and synths, presaging the decade to come in indie music.
By 2012, “Americana” already seemed over its peak, finished before it ever really started. Mumford & Sons’ second effort was essentially a reprise of their first, as was Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros’, and Avett Brothers rode the wave of I and Love and You (2009) into a series of increasingly sterile pop albums they are still churning out today.
But this may all be less a historic observation than a personal one. In 2011, I was just entering high school. Frank Ocean put out Nostalgia, Ultra in February, and Kendrick Lamar put out Section.80 that summer, changing music, but also changing what I listened to. I imagine many people my age will get the impression when they hear an album like The King Is Dead that it came from a very particular, very ephemeral moment, when liking Americana naively made us think we had good taste.
If that strain of Americana did influence anything, it merely laid the groundwork for the genre to grow up, affording a new generation of musicians more authentically engaged in a country and roots tradition — Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Margo Price, otherwise cast-outs of the Nashville establishment — a chance to gain the recognition they deserve.
Maybe it’s safer to say there is no such thing as Americana. Country, folk, bluegrass, Southern rock … is Americana really anything more than nostalgia for those genres, a constant looking back? The King Is Dead won’t mean much for posterity, because it did nothing new. For that, we have The Decemberists’ earlier work. But it’s a great album anyway, a little gem of songwriting in the crown of the far weirder and more marvelous reign of indie music’s favorite literati.
Pick up a copy of The King Is Dead here…
The King Is Dead Artwork
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