Most discussions of The Decemberists contain similar themes, and that’s probably in large part because the band has cultivated such themes for themselves and one can’t help but be drawn into that whole storyline. The most basic way to put it is that their songs are often tales of olden times, when chimney sweeps and barrow boys were in existence, and people were scared of succumbing to consumption. Though early American in time period, the verbiage put forth by singer Colin Meloy pretty much required an Ivy League education or at least a dictionary to fully understand. And as engaging as their early records were, jaunty little melodies that told such stories in such florid ways, as time went on they became increasingly complex and alienating, the coup de grace being 2009’s rock opera “The Hazards of Love”. There was good news on the horizon though, and it finally arrived earlier this year with the band’s sixth full length “The King Is Dead”. Gone were the heady concepts and a fair amount of the ten dollar words. In their place was a much more humble and dare I say plainspoken alt-country sound, with guest appearances by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Americana legend Gillian Welch. Such a rootsy record was a change of pace for the band, and it pretty much saved them from the sharp downward slope their careers had taken. It may not have been on par with their best stuff, but it seemed to be a gentle nod to fans that they had heard their cries of disappointment and wanted to do right by them. As The Decemberists ready themselves for an extended break to pursue other things both musical and non-musical, they’re leaving us with one last taste of country via the “Long Live the King” EP. Culled from the same sessions that yielded “The King Is Dead”, this six song collection is pretty much all outtakes, and that alone should tell you a little something about their quality.
That’s not to say all records that promote b-sides, outtakes and rarities are bad, after all sometimes artists need to leave certain tracks off because they merely don’t fit sonically or thematically with the rest of an album. Then there are the bands whose leftovers are still better than most other bands’ best material. In the case of the “Long Live the King” EP, if your expectations are low going in, then they’ll easily be met. To be cut from a pretty good but not quite great record should already inform you of how well these songs are going to go, piecemeal bits that don’t fully make sense together but nevertheless remain interesting curios for the band’s devoted fan base. The set begins with “E. Watson”, a song about a murder that pairs Meloy’s vocals with only an acoustic guitar. Considering the absence of the rest of the band, it’s easy to think of Meloy’s covers EPs, in which he performed songs by Morrissey, Shirley Collins and Sam Cooke entirely on his own. It’s a somber way to start things, and a good indicator as to why the song might not have fit in with the cheerier demeanor on “The King Is Dead”. Much more in line with that last record is “Foregone”, a track that has the alt-country twang and strong lyrics to make it a solid deep cut rather than an outtake. For whatever reason though, it was cut, and we’re all the better for getting the chance to hear it now. Contrasting with that is “Burying Davy”, a dark, prog-rock trip that certainly feels like the band was still in “The Hazards of Love” mode when it was recorded. If there’s one track that feels most out of place and unworthy of inclusion on any Decemberists release, it’s that one.
The second half of the “Long Live the King” EP takes a turn for the interesting, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The track “I4U & U4ME” is labeled as the “home demo” version, though honestly if you’ve been listening to a lot of bedroom-recorded demos from unknown artists, this sounds pristine by comparison. The quality isn’t even that different from the professional studio recordings on the rest of the EP. And while the full band is present on the track, there is the sense that it could use just a touch of fleshing out into a more full bodied and impressive cut should they so desire. It’s a whole lot of bouncy fun too, which is not something you can say about a lot of Decemberists songs. Also fun but in an entirely different way is the band’s take on the Grateful Dead’s “Row Jimmy”, a nearly 7 minute excursion that originally appeared as a b-side on the “January Hymn” single late last year. The loose interpretation of the original benefits it greatly and results in one of the more memorable versions of such an oft-covered cut. Last but certainly not least comes “Sonnet”, a rather lighthearted acoustic number whose lyrics are culled from the annals of Dante himself. Yes, the “Dante’s Inferno” guy or the “Divine Comedy” guy, however you want to remember him. It’s a fine way to end the EP, but clearly wouldn’t be an optimal choice for inclusion on any real Decemberists record, unless they crafted one entirely based on the works of classical literature.
It will likely be awhile before we hear from The Decemberists again. That is to say, give them a few years to do their own things before they return to this band. They could use the break and we could use the break. The “Long Live the King” EP comes across as more of a stopgap effort, something to tide fans over or at least wave a temporary goodbye with a few crumbs and morsels left sitting out with no home elsewhere. Outside of maybe “Burying Davy”, there’s nothing here that’s outright bad, though there’s also nothing that outright sparkles either. Just a few more solid songs from a band that could use more of them in their catalogue. Let’s just hope they remember that down the road when it comes time to return to the stage they were meant for.
The Decemberists – Row Jimmy (Grateful Dead cover)