The Decemberists Hit the Big Time with The King Is Dead
In March 2009, Portland folk-rockers The Decemberists released a rock opera called The Hazards of Love. Inspired by an EP of the same name by English folk singer Anne Briggs, the album tells the story of a woman who falls in love with a shape-shifting forest dweller. It was an ambitious one, to be sure, but not likely to take its place next to Tommy or The Wall in the pantheon of rock operas.
For the band's follow-up, The King Is Dead, it took a more measured approach, which isn't to say the rich storytelling that has defined records like Picaresque and The Crane Wife is absent; it's just that the whole album seems to breathe a little easier.
Songs like "All Rise" and "Rox in the Box" feature the kind of Americana inflections singer/songwriter Colin Meloy hasn't indulged so deeply since his time with pre-Decemberists project Tarkio. Album opener "Don't Carry It All" may be least theatrical thing Meloy has put to tape yet, his strident voice couples with guest Gillian Welch's "you must bear your neighbor's burden within reason" like a mission statement.
"We've always had a little bit of that influence," says Decemberists bassist Nate Query. "I think every record has shown some of that. That's always kind of been there and, then, in some ways, I think Colin was really enjoying writing in that vein."
In recording The King Is Dead, the band opted to stay away from traditional recording studios, instead setting up shop in a barn at Pendarvis Farm, near Portland.
"We were talking about making a barn-y record," says Query. "We made [Picaresque] in a church in Portland and kind of brought a studio in it. And then we found a place commutable from Portland that seemed perfect, and Tucker [Martine], our producer, just brought in basically a whole studio in there and it ended up being a really fun way to do it."
When The King Is Dead was released in January, it debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, the band's most successful debut yet.
"You always want your record to do as well as possible," says Query. "But it wasn't like that's why I started music — to be on top of the charts — but when it happened, it really made me feel lucky for being part of this amazing community."
Following the end of The Decemberists' latest tour, the group plans to take an extended break. The band hasn't dedicated much thought to following up its surprise hit.
"When it's time to start promoting it . . . Obviously the record label and management, that's their goal. That's what they want to do. Our job is really just to make good music. I can't imagine a band like The Decemberists deciding to have a number one record before recording and making it happen. It has to just sort of happen through timing and the hard work of our promotion people. All we can do is make a good record and then put it out in the world and see what happens."
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