The Decemberists have been a confounding group to follow. The band’s approach is all over the place — the Brit-folk leanings of early records led to the prog of The Tain and the expansive The Crane Wife, which led to the flawed-but-better-than-you-think rock opera The Hazards of Love — but their records deliver the goods with remarkable consistency. This is the rare band that joined a major label and somehow got weirder, more ambitious, and — even when they stumble — more interesting.
So if this year’s album, The King is Dead, sounded more straightforward, it’s only because the band is dealing in a new trope (Colin Meloy and company are, in the end, shapeshifters) that requires such an approach. This may make for a leaner sound, but the pacing and execution of this “country” album is just as intricate as its heftier predecessors. And now, with companion EP Long Live the King, we get to see the other directions the band could have taken the record, to sometimes fascinating results.
The EP features two absolute knock-outs. “E. Watson,” based on this fantastic novel, is a fine slice of murder balladry. Told by one of the group who shot down the title character, the song is dusty and scraped out. The acoustic guitar rattles while Meloy — shadowed by Laura Veirs and Annalisa Tornfelt — belts the story out with a sweet gravity. It’s darker turn than anything on The King is Dead, as is the other highlight here, “Burying Davey.”
If The King is Dead channeled Harvest Moon-era Neil Young, “Davey” is all about the swampy weight of Crazy Horse at their finest. The song finally nails the heay-rock vibe the Decemberists have been trying to hit for years — see “When the War Came” — by focusing more on echoed atmosphere than dense crunch. The guitar work is excellent, tangled and moody throughout, and the space of the song makes it a sound far too big to fit the record it was recorded for, but set off here it shines.
The other stuff here is solid, too, though they feel more like things that sound like the original record but didn’t make the cut. Home-recorded “I 4 U & U 4 Me” may take its spelling cues from Prince, but it (like much of The King is Dead) sounds like a twanged-up R.E.M., while “Foregone” is a honeyed alt-country stomper. The most strange and divisive track here is bound to be “Row Jimmy,” the band’s cover of a classic Grateful Dead tune. It’s a ragged take, surely, but it has its own tossed-off charm, with the band ripping through the song with a guileless zeal.
For a companion (read: hold-over) release, Long Live the King is better than most. It shows once again just how consistent the Decemberists can be, and gives us a few new twists in the Americana sound they’re steeped in these days. While we wait to hear the next turn in the band’s sound, the next trope they plan to tackle, it’s nice to know they mined this one for all its worth. Hearing these songs — both the brilliant ones that didn’t fit The King is Dead and the ones that got left off — somehow makes the original album sound stronger. So while it can’t really stand alone, it plays awfully well with its musical sibling.