Earlier this year, two of my favourite bands released new albums: The Decemberists, everyone’s favourite Oklahoma-based indie-folk band; and The Foo Fighters, Nirvana’s bastard hard rock child. The albums are called The King is Dead and Wasting Light, one is brilliant, the other is uninspiring. Both of them lean quite heavily on the artist’s previous work.
So let’s start with the brilliant one. The King is Dead is The Decemberists’ 6th album. After the rather disappointingly absurd and over-the-top rock opera/musical sound track that was The Hazards of Love, their lasts album, released in 2009, The Decemberist have gone back to basics and released an album full of fun, folky, indie rock songs. Nothing extravagant, no songs over 6 minutes, just good, clean fun.
And it really is some outstanding fun. The first time I listened to this album, I was singing along, even though I had no idea what half the lyrics were. Fortunately I was alone at the time, so my dignity was left mostly intact. In any case, all ten song on the King is Dead are incredibly catchy and easy to listen to. Rox in the Box, Calamity Song and June Hymn in particular are really catchy.
The sound of the album is very indicative of The Decemberist’s early work. They musical and lyrical style is much more like their first two or three albums that their last two, which tend to have a slightly harder, more rocky sound. The King is Dead is incredibly folky and has the signature Decemberists nautical references. Some songs especially, like Down by the Water and All Rise would be particularly at home on Castaways and Cut-outs or Her Majesty, the Decemberists; the Decemberists’ first two albums.
Not all of the, however, would be at home on earlier albums. The King is Dead might borrow quite heavily from the early stylings of the Decemberists, but it is its own album with its own sound. It adds to what it borrows and develops it in a very natural and interesting way. Songs like Rox in the Box and This is Why we Fight are indicative of the sound of the albums. Lyrically pretty dark and actually quite rebellious, musically folky, but with some of the rock-and-roll feel of later Decemberists.
The Decemberists have clearly gone back to their roots with this album and it is almost the complete opposite of their previous album, which was very poorly received. But they’ve not just gone back to basics and written a rather bland album, they’ve really developed and explored their early sound and created a fantastic album. You all should go out and buy it, right now.
What you should not buy is Wasting Light by the Foo Fighters. Actually, that’s unfair. It’s not that bad, but there are better Foo Fighers’ albums. Wasting Light is their seventh studio album and is not unlike The King is Dead in that it borrow heavily from their previous work. However, while The Decemberists built on their previous work and made an album with its own unique sound, the Foo Fighters just made an album that sounds exactly like their previous work.
To be fair, the Foo Fighters never have been about innovation and exploration of their sound, they’ve always put making good rock songs ahead of making interesting ones and there are some excellent rock songs on this album. Rope and Walk are both fantastic songs and most of the album sounds pretty good. I wouldn’t have a problem with listening to any of the songs on their own, but the album doesn’t really feel like an album. It really feels like a collection of songs that didn’t make the cut for their earlier albums.
I suppose it is slightly unfair to hold the Foo Fighters up to standards to which they don’t really worry too much about. In terms of music, I value albums as works of art, rather than a way of presenting a collection of songs. An album is more than the sum of its parts; it needs to have a definitive sound that runs through the album. There doesn’t need to be a story per se, although the album is a decent story telling medium when used properly, it just need to hang together as a work of art, rather than a collection of works of art thrown together.
The thing is that the Foo Fighters have managed this with all their previous albums, in particular their more recent albums had a very definite sound to them. Wasting Light just feels like they’ve not really tried to create an album at all. It is little more than a collection of songs without anything hanging it together, so it’s not a terribly satisfying listen.
The main problem with the album, however, is not that it’s not really an album so to speak, but that it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. The songs are all most certainly Foo Fighters songs, but they’re nothing different from what we find on all the other Foo Fighters albums. This album doesn’t do anything new with the sound. The Decemberists took inspiration from their previous work and built on that sound to makes something new, The Foo Fighters just took their previous work and remade it.
I said at the start that you shouldn’t buy Wasting Light. That’s a little harsh. If you like Foo Fighters, then it’s a good Foo Fighters’ album. If you not really a fan, or don’t really know them too well, there are far more cohesive Foo Fighters’ albums you can get. There are some fantastic songs on this album, but it’s most certainly not Foos at their best.
So two albums, one that might have jumped into my top ten list (the song Rox in the Box most certainly has) and one that fits nicely into the Foos Discography without really being terribly inspiring. These albums are, in some ways, pretty similar. They both borrow heavily from the back catalogues of both bands (and why not when both back catalogues are so damn good) and both contain some fantastic music. The King is Dead is a much better album for two reasons: firstly it feels like an album, not a collection of songs. It coheres in a way that Wasting Light doesn’t. Secondly, it builds on the Dacemberists’ back catalogue and develops its own unique sound, whereas Wasting Light just repeats everything Foo Fighters have done to date without adding to it. These are, I suppose, the things that differentiate between a very good album and a mediocre one.