In the opening seconds of The Decemberists’ We All Raise Our Voices To The Air, lead-man Colin Meloy quips, “This is not the Keith Urban concert;” but maybe it should be. While the band’s first-ever live release succeeds in reflecting on each album in their deep repertoire, it hardly matches the quality or intensity avid listeners have come to know and expect from The Decemberists. The record certainly has its highlights, but ultimately We All Raise Our Voices to the Air showcases the fatigue of a road-weary band with a lead-man lacking passion or energy in his performance of songs old and new alike.
The apparent disinterest and fatigue on the part of Meloy stands out as the album’s most glaring weakness. While the press release for We All Raise Our Voices to the Air declares The Decemberists to be “one of rock music’s most thrilling live acts,” Meloy’s seemingly apathetic performance kills the buzz of what should be a riveting live record. The band’s sound seems flat, and Meloy sounds zoned out during fan-favorites that were once among the group’s most entertaining live songs. The lyrics to “The Soldiering Life” are sung in a mechanical, lifeless and boring fashion, while newer songs like “Rise to Me,” and “All Arise!” feel hollow, causing the album to drag at times. Additionally, Meloy’s signature banter with the audience lacks the punch and humor he is known for. In a bit about “The Footloose Moment,” Meloy’s dialogue comes off as scathing rather than funny.
To the band’s credit, many shows on the tour for The King is Dead took place in amphitheaters and large venues, and The Decemberists are musicians whose live performance has historically lent itself to smaller music halls. For example, the group’s 2007 live DVD, The Decemberists: A Practical Handbook, features a spirited and electric performance at Portland, Oregon’s Roseland Theater that can only be described as legendary. In stark contrast to We All Raise Our Voices to the Air, the band clearly develops a close rapport with the audience that fuels the performance and adds to its intensity. A testament of how good The Decemberists really can be, during epic closer “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” guitarist Chris Funk actually leaps into the audience and terrorizes it with the great whale from the song, rather than simply gesturing to the audience to ignite their fear, as in the somewhat contrived performance on the band’s new release.
Over the past ten years, The Decemberists have released nothing but quality music that is heartfelt, quirky and true to themselves. As a live-release retrospective of their first decade together, We All Raise Our Voices to the Air, albeit featuring some of their best songs and fairly favoring performances from 2011’s The King is Dead, leaves out some of their most creative music and greatest performances of 2011. Specifically, songs from The Hazards of Love (2009), arguably one of the most creative and intriguing works of the last decade, are largely absent from the live album. Though the band performed some of Hazard’s best songs during the 2011 tour, including “Annan Water,” and “Won’t Want For Love (Margaret In the Taiga),” “The Rake’s Song” is the only reference to Hazards on We All Raise Our Voices to the Air. This is especially regrettable, since Sara Watkins, who toured with the Decemberists throughout 2011 as the lead harmony vocal and violinist, did a wicked version of “Won’t Want For Love” that gave a whole new dimension to the already spectacular track.
The Decemberists’ first-ever live release manages to redeem itself with flashes of the musical brilliance and passionate performance the group is renowned for, though. While it offers consistently strong instrumental performances by the band and their musical guests, it also maintains the actual feel of a live concert. In fact, the track-listing of We All Raise Our Voices to the Air follows the same general path as many of their 2011 summer tour setlists. Additionally, there are several independent performances that stand out. “We Both Go Down Together” and “The Bagman’s Gambit,” two tracks performed in succession from their breakout release Picaresque (2005), are performed with enthusiasm and emotion as Meloy belts out each line with strength and feeling. Likewise, “The Crane Wife 1, 2 and 3” highlights the group’s endurance while “I Was Meant For the Stage,” though a cheesy way to end the album, is performed with spunk and features a raucous encore that only The Decemberists could give.
Nevertheless, in spite of the band’s strong performances on individual songs and the strength of the instrumentals overall, We All Raise Our Voices to the Air falls flat because it fails to provide an accurate picture of what these musicians are truly capable of in a live setting. As stated in the press release for this album, The Decemberists truly are one of rock music’s best, both in the studio and on the road. Unfortunately, this live recap of their first decade in existence does not do them justice. Though the summer 2011 tour saw the group performing critically acclaimed new material while digging deep into their musical vault, the fatigue and loss of self-identity of the band (particularly Colin Meloy) on this tour is what ultimately defines the album. The Decemberists are far better than We All Raise Our Voices to the Air would lead the average listener to believe, and hopefully their next studio release and tour will prove it.