Action franchises often run up against what I call the Law of Escalating Crises: the tendency for the threats confronted by the hero to grow more outlandish as the franchise ages and the writers are forced to one-up their own canon. A classic example of this is the James Bond series: in Tomorrow Never Dies, 007 averted World War III; in The World Is Not Enough; he kept a nuclear bomb from exploding in Istanbul; and in Die Another Day, he foiled a plot to use an orbital sunlight deflector to burn down the Korean Demilitarized Zone and throw Asia into turmoil.

So when it came time to talk about a sequel to Die Another Day, the producers looked at the options for further escalation and wisely decided they were a touch improbableeven within the freewheeling confines of the Bond canon. So they broke the cycle: Casino Royale eschewed all of the established backstory, and the threat faced by Bond, while suitably heinous, was of something less than world-destroying proportions. A freedom was found in the paring down of tradition. 1

Now, allow me to propose the following analogy:

The Hazards of Love is to Die Another Day as The King is Dead is to Casino Royale.

The Hazards of Love and The King Is Dead are albums by the Portland folk-rock quintet The Decemberists. Hazards was released in 2008 and was the capstone of a five-album ascent to respectable popularity. The Decemberists had a love of allusion and poetry from the first, but they were somewhat unusual in that they trended toward greater experimentation as their popularity grew. As I put it in my review of Hazards of Love two years ago:

“The Decemberists seem to have realized that pretension is somewhat expected of them at this point, and have found a sort of freedom in that expectation. The Hazards of Love is a full-fledged rock-opera. It is, in other words, the album that the Decemberists have always wanted to make, with all of the strengths and weaknesses implied therein.”

I gave The Hazards of Love a positive review, and it remains a significant musical achievement. But for me, the album has not aged well. The cohesion of the album actually works to its disadvantage: there are few individual songs that I find myself revisiting, and it turns out that I’m not often in the mood for a seventeen-song rock-opera about forest creatures. Like Die Another Day, The Hazards of Love was supposed to be the fullest expression of a particular artistic vision; like Die Another Day, it was ultimately forgettable.

The King is Dead, then, is a musical reboot. It’s musically ambitious but thematically conservative. The songs are short and loose. Colin Meloy, the lead singer, sounds better than he ever has, and guest-spots by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Gillian Welch work splendidly. It’s just a lovely album, filled with lovely songs – like “Calamity Song”, “January Hymn”, and “All Arise”.

We sometimes put too much focus, I think, on innovation. There’s a tendency to think that each album in an artist’s oeuvre should make obvious their musical growth, that each release should be the most ambitious. Sometimes – like this time – it’s more important to excel at something humble than to reach for something grandiose, and miss.

  1. My favorite example of the LOEC is 24. In Season 1, Jack Bauer saves the President from an assassination attempt and retrieves his kidnapped family. Ok. In season 4, Bauer averts no fewer than three nuclear-based terror plots – in a single day!