Released in January by Capitol Records, The King Is Dead marks a departure for The Decemberists, a band long associated with erudite lyrics and lofty melodies. Brimming with catchy choruses and rousing harmonica solos, frontman and principle songwriter, Colin Meloy, swoons on songs celebrating the simple pleasures of country life and the changing seasons, weaving war cries (“This is Why We Fight”) and sorrowful reflection (“January Hymn”) into a rich soundscape. Featuring Gillian Welch and REM guitarist, Peter Buck, the album shows steps in a new direction for the group.
Meloy sounds as though he has loosened up since 2009′s The Hazards of Love, an intricate narrative focusing on Margaret and William, the archetypical star-crossed lovers in folk and their fantastical tale of love and loss. Drawing less from the British folk revival and exploring the musical themes of his native North America, he strips the new album’s story to its bare essentials and condenses his vision to a mere forty minutes while retaining the scope and beauty that fans expect.
Perhaps this and the album’s accessibility are what made it to the number one selling album upon release, a first for The Decemberists and a rarity for folk pop artists. But at 94,000 units sold, it comes nowhere near the record for opening week sales, currently held by Taylor Swift’s Speak to Me, which cracked one million days after issue. Considering 2010′s list of top albums was dominated by rap and pure pop records, it raises the question – who bought it?
According to Mark Mulligan of Forrester Research, an organization which analyzes consumer habits, last year’s declining iPod sales and the rapid cultural permeation of smartphones denote a shift in the demographics of Internet music downloaders. Because consumers are increasingly using their cell phones as mp3 players and because of the relatively higher cost of these devices, older and more affluent people are becoming a larger percentage of the downloading community. What this means is that with CDs still popular among listeners thirteen and under and downloads dominated by working adults, the college age crowd, to whom The Decemberists largely appeal, is caught in the middle. And yet, the folky group with indie roots reached number one.
But with indie music garnering a lot of attention over the last few years, perhaps this feat should not be a surprise. The commercial success of bands like MGMT and Arcade Fire created many new fans, and its use in many popular films of the past decade certainly reinforces that notion. A genre dominated by college kids and Pitchfork-reading twenty somethings now finds itself accommodating a multitude of listeners ranging in age and social standing. The facts of the matter, coupled with consideration for the methods people choose in acquiring music, pose another question. In an age where illegal file sharing undercuts the financial success of many artists, is The King Is Dead‘s sales ranking even accurate or relevant? Does it actually reflect the popularity of the album?
Well, if three sold-out shows at NYC’s Beacon Theatre in late January are my indication, then the answer would be yes. And with the growing popularity of other indie folk acts, notably Seattle’s Fleet Foxes and Portland’s experimental sextet, Blitzen Trapper, it could be that the zeitgeist is placing folk in its crosshairs. If pop and rap are king, then the king certainly is not dead. But only time will tell if folk is fit for the throne.