How to be creative when you’re old and kind of a buzzkill

I had a weird realization while sitting down earlier this weekend, determined to make a playable game even if it killed me: It’s really hard to make anything creative as an adult. It’s a challenge for me, at least.

Thinking back on my younger years when creativity seemed to come in a steady stream of sketches, words and designs, I spent some time wondering: what the hell happened? Shouldn’t my years of experience empower my creative process instead of hindering it? And more importantly, how can I train myself to stop shooting every fledgling idea down before it’s barely had a chance to fly?

Another year older, another year less confident

Remember how I used to make games a long time ago? I’ve been thinking a lot about the process I used back then. I was just ten years old with minimal outside training, and yet I was able to chart a course through the entire game-creation progress: design, programming, writing, everything. Those are skills that take a lifetime to master and, as an adult, I’ve spent a lot of time working hard to refine them.

But here’s what I keep trying to wrap my head around: a ten-year-old with a crappy, second-hand Mac in his bedroom — me, in this case — managed to crank out functional, personal, debugged, fully realized games. And now that kid’s an adult who’s trying to figure out how he can someday be as self-sufficient as he was fifteen years ago. Go figure.

So, what’s changed?

Anatomy of a ten-year-old game developer

There are several pillars of making a game. I’m paraphrasing, but let’s call them:

- Design (what does everything do?)

- Code (how does everything do what it’s supposed to?)

- Writing (how does the game communicate with the player?)

- Art (how is the experience enriched through music, sound, visuals, etc.?)

I managed to keep developing as an artist, writer and designer through high school, college and beyond, but somewhere around adolescence my interest in coding largely fell by the wayside. I took a year’s worth of Visual Basic classes as a teenager and wrote a few simple games that ran on my graphing calculator, but that was about the extent of it.

Or, to put things in perspective: I lived in a house full of CS majors, but I graduated from college with just a single term of Javascript under my belt. At the same time, I wrote thousands of pages of stuff, my Wacom tablet saw hundreds of hours of use and I sketched out countless game ideas on notebooks that are wedged somewhere between clothes in the closet at my mom’s house.

Clearly I’m still pretty well interested making cool, interactive stuff[1]. But I haven’t been able to find the means to take all these ideas and commit them to something real, tangible and functional — something that’s programmed to do things. So what changed?

Inspiration

Most of my early coding education came from my family’s first-ever Amazon purchase: HyperCard in a Hurry. I spent hours scouring its pages, learning the tools and rebuilding the examples with more of my own improvised tweaks layered on top each time. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was knee-deep in the creative iteration process. It was pretty cool.

But one kid in a vacuum isn’t a formula for great ideas. Fortunately, inspiration was surprisingly easy to come by for the time, thanks to AOL’s file-browsing service. Hundreds of other aspiring HyperCard aesthetes would share their stacks with the broader public, eager to see them distributed and critiqued. For a kid on his own at the cusp of the Internet age, discovering a seemingly-infinite network of content to devour was mind-altering. It fundamentally changed my core values and thought processes. Pretty heavy stuff — and it was all thanks to some clunky, amateur HyperCard games.

Similar game portals have come and gone[2], but none of them ever managed to hook me like before. I tinkered with Flash games and toyed around with ActionScript, but nothing recaptured the thrill I got from playing through an undiscovered HyperCard stack and trying to figure out how I could reproduce the cool effects and clever functions other people had produced.

Content creation is everywhere in games these days. The simple fact that games like LittleBigPlanet and WarioWare DIY came from major game publishers demonstrates consumer demand for tools that enable the average person to create interactive experiences to play and share with their friends.

People like making games. I like thinking about how games work. So why is it so hard to find the right frame of mind to start creating?

In short: we rely too much on our own experiences. Doubt is a natural, healthy reflex we develop based on the times our expectations were betrayed, and it helps us steer clear of unnecessary risks. But being creative means taking all kind of risks, necessary or otherwise, and the burden isn’t on the creator to filter them out until they’ve been granted a fair chance to see the light of day. You’ll have all the time in the world to edit, but you need to start somewhere.

The challenge I’m posing to myself this week is to spend a lot more time letting ideas gestate and spring forth and a lot less time pruning out the ones that seem risky, unwise or nonsensical. Being right all the time isn’t very attractive, after all, and I sure as hell don’t know where else I’m going to get the inspiration to make something fun and worthwhile.

So that’s this week’s thought experiment. What works for you? How do you give yourself room to come up with awesome stuff without stymieing your creativity?

—————————————————-

[1]: Seriously.

[2]: Some great ones that come to mind include Newgrounds, Kongregate and Steam, but I never liked working with ActionScript so I ruled out Flash development a long time ago. Probably short-sighted on my part.

My Favorite Albums from 2012

Yeah, I totally forgot to do one of these lists this time around. Blame the similar feature I was working on over at Silicon Sasquatch.

As it turns out, I actually did put together a top-ten list of albums from 2012 as well as a companion set of honorable mentions and other albums I really liked. I’m not gonna spend a whole lot of time on this post since we’re already pretty deep into a year with plenty of great music — I’m looking at you, STRFKR/James Blake/The Knife/The National/Daft Punk. Instead, I’ll just run through my top ten and leave you with a few other albums I’d recommend checking out.

10 - Deer Creek Canyon10. Sera Cahoone – Deer Creek Canyon

It’s not the kind of album I would’ve gone searching for, but I’m so glad I found it. I’d never heard of Sera Cahoone, but the singer-songwriter’s indie-country sound and soulful lyrics grabbed me — it’s infinitely listenable.

Notable tracks: Deer Creek Canyon, Nervous Wreck

Shields9. Grizzly Bear – Shields

Grizzly Bear isn’t always one of my favorite bands, but the group’s perfectionist attention to detail is on full display in Shields. Excellent start-to-finish, this album demonstrates the full gamut of the band’s abilities.

Notable tracks: Sleeping Ute, Yet Again

09 - Tramp8. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp

Haunting.

Notable tracks: Serpents, Warsaw

The North7. Stars – The North

I don’t know what it is about this band. Stars treads a strange line between synth-pop and indie rock that’s doused in nostalgic lyrics and wistful sentiments. The resulting sound is one of my favorites, though, and The North might be Stars’ best album since 2004′s definitive Set Yourself on Fire.

Noteworthy tracks: The North, Through the Mines, Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It

Celebration Rock6. Japandroids – Celebration Rock

This album is a screaming, sweating cry of defiance. Celebration Rock is exactly what the name implies — a too-brief eight tracks of driving rock that loops effortlessly. In a year of brilliant music, there’s no album I had more fun with than this one.

Noteworthy tracks: The Nights of Wine and Roses, Fire’s Highway, Evil’s Sway, The House that Heaven Built

The Lion's Roar5. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

Those harmonies.

Noteworthy tracks: The Lion’s Roar, Emmylou, King of the World

07 - Kill for Love4. Chromatics – Kill for Love

Also haunting.

Noteworthy tracks: Into the Black (Neil Young cover), Kill for Love, Lady, The River

Attack on Memory

3. Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory

Hell yes, this album.

Noteworthy tracks: Wasted Days, Stay Useless, Fall In

Swing Lo Magellan

2. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

Sheer brilliance in songwriting, instrumentation and performance. The chemistry between frontman Dave Longstreth’s clean, plaintive voice and the potent backing harmonies is what sells this album for me.

Noteworthy tracks: About to Die, Just from Chevron, Gun Has No Trigger

The Idler Wheel

1. Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

I wasn’t a Fiona Apple fan before this album. That was a mistake. Apple is clearly a prodigious songwriter and performer, and everything about this album stands as testament to her bold, personal music.

When I put this list together Dirty Projectors and Fiona Apple were neck-and-neck for best album, but I gave the nod to Fiona Apple simply because of how dumbfounded I am every time I listen to it. It’s nothing but brilliant songwriting, instrumentation and performances.

Noteworthy tracks: Every Single Night, Daredevil, Werewolf, Left Alone

Honorable mentions:

  • The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
  • Patrick Watson – Adventures In Your Own Backyard
  • DIIV – Oshin
  • Purity Ring – Shrines
  • Cat Power – Sun
  • Metric – Synthetica
  • Tame Impala – Lonerism
  • Dan Deacon – Americana
  • Hospitality – Hospitality
  • The Shins – Port of Morrow
  • The Walkmen – Heaven

Python, PHP, Knytt and Twine: An Update on Getting Shit Done

It’s easy to get down on yourself when you’re trying to grow in a lot of disparate directions all at the same time and the results of your work aren’t clear. It’s a constant struggle for me, especially considering my tendency to focus exclusively on what I could be doing better under the guise of pushing myself to work harder and more efficiently.

In reality, I’m just being hard on myself for no good reason — probably because it’s easier than acknowledging that life is hard and making even a modicum of progress on anything substantial is no mean feat. So I wanted to take some time to look at the progress I’ve made in the past few weeks.

I’ve started working with a couple of new languages: Python and PHP. I’d always heard Python recommended as a great first programming language, and I can see why: it’s strict, but that forces you to keep your code orderly and easy-to-read. I’ve actually shipped a few snippets of Python code at work, which I’m pretty proud of considering

1. I’m not an engineer, and

2. I hadn’t even touched the language two months ago.

For someone who’s pretty comfortable with HTML, CSS and Javascript, PHP was the missing link necessary to put this whole Internet thing together. Now that I’ve confronted my fear of dollar signs (turns out they’re called sigils — who knew?) I’m excited to see how PHP incorporates within a greater web-design framework. It’s particularly useful to me from both a professional and a hobbyist standoint, since both Facebook and WordPress run on it. I’m most excited to see how I can start building out the knowledge necessary to help build Silicon Sasquatch into the site I’d always wanted. I’ve been carrying a mental laundry list of tweaks, fixes and improvements my site has been in desperate need of for years now, so the thought of being able to finally do something about it is relieving.

So that’s the code side of things. In terms of design, I’m starting to get my feet wet with Knytt Stories and Twine. I’m really excited about what Twine can do from a choose-your-own-adventure perspective, especially given its excellent visual UI and clever implementation of variables. The last “interactive fiction” game I wrote was a short, crude adventure game for my TI–83 where the player was an unfaithful Bill Clinton who had to escape from the White House and the terrible wrath of the First Lady[1].

Knytt Stories is the best do-it-yourself Metroidvania generator ever created. In case you’re wondering what the hell that hyperlinked word means: Metroidvania is a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania, two game series that share a legacy of two-dimensional, exploration-driven action gameplay in an open world where the player progresses by obtaining new abilities that enable new areas to be discovered. It’s a very engaging subgenre, and I’ve been dreaming of making games in that style ever since I first played Metroid II: Return of Samus as a young kid.

Considering I’ve been working full-time, editing articles for Silicon Sasquatch and traveling a bit in and around Austin over the past month or so, I’m actually pretty satisfied with how far I’ve come since I recommitted to making games. It’s even more impressive when I consider how hard it’s been to pry myself away from the final chapters of Persona 4 Golden.

It’s been hard work, but the best part is being able to look back on what I’ve done and recognize that it’s been a fun and fascinating journey so far. Learning new skills, refining old ones and taking the time to let my mind wander are some of the most rewarding ways I can think of to spend my time.

Speaking of which, I should probably finish sketching out this Knytt game and start actually building something.


  1. Remember, there was a time where this sort of thing was actually topical.  ↩

More game design nonsense

Welcome back! After a couple weeks of wandering through the various stages of doubt and frustration that always go hand-in-hand with progress, I’m finally ready to share a few minor updates on my journey toward actually making games that people can play.

A Strange Dream 3

First: I’ve sketched out a couple more lightweight game treatments in my handy, gigantic Moleskine notebook. There’s nothing too ambitious here since I’m trying to settle on a handful of games that I could actually hope to complete in the next few weeks, but right now I’m toying with a few specific ideas:

  • A short, mostly linear platforming game that’s about 10-12 minutes long built in Knytt Stories (see above image). In addition to making a series of wonderful, atmospheric games like NightSky and Knytt Underground, Nicklas “Nifflas” Nygren built a sort of a DIY-Metroidvania engine that just happens to be super-accessible. I’ve dabbled in the Knytt Stories environment before, but now that I feel like I’ve teased out a makeable concept I’m eager to get into action.
  • A menu-driven “lifestyle sim” as a means to dip my toe into iOS development. That’s a scary environment for somebody with no experience in C, so this is probably going to first take shape as a web application in Javascript. I don’t really want to say more about it until I’ve settled on a specific topic, though.

Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 7.29.59 PMSecond: I’ve been reading Anna Anthropy‘s book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form. It’s impressive both for its lengthy title and its thesis that we’re on the cusp of unlocking games as a creative medium for the masses. So far, it’s been a great read.

I’m hoping to have more consistent updates in the near future as I double down on the work I’ve been doing.

Adventures in Bad Game Design

Gratuitous texture theft!

Let me tell you a story.

Once there was a kid, and this kid loved video games. Ever since he was old enough to grasp an NES controller, he was endlessly captivated by the experiences they made possible. And so he decided at a very young age that he wanted to make some games of his own.

So he did. He spent his youngest years sketching out scenarios and ideas that borrowed liberally from the 8- and 16-bit games of his youth. At the age of 11, he had begun making rudimentary point-and-click adventures using HyperCard, a hyperlink-driven tool that was a lot like the web before the web existed. These were traditional adventure games in the style of classics like Full Throttle and The Secret of Monkey Island on an old Macintosh Performa in his elementary school’s computer lab during recess.

His finest work — “Hex versus the Dastardly Decagon,” named after two characters hastily drawn with the polygon tool — was composed of nearly 100 different slides and featured a half dozen or so branching paths to the end. His teacher was impressed and had him demo the full game to his sixth-grade class. Copies were distributed on floppy disks.

The kid was pretty proud of himself.

Junior high brought algebra and geometry classes, which in turn brought out the graphing calculators. The kid would tap away at his TI-83 while distracted in math class and during between-class lulls in the hallway. He wrote a text-based adventure game using BASIC and tinkered with assembly a bit. He didn’t care for the programming, really — that’s not why he did it. But when he saw what he could accomplish by brute-forcing some basic understanding through trial-and-error, he was hooked. The power to create experiences — to establish rule sets and to watch people interact with them — was the most gratifying work he’d ever done.

Then high school came, and college shortly after. He dabbled a bit here and there, brute-forcing some basic Flash and ActionScript understanding and toying with the idea of a really simple Javascript web toy, but most ideas fell by the wayside. This was the time for building relationships, he thought; for learning as much as possible; for thinking more than doing.

But he never forgot what it was like to make things. And so, one day, shortly before his 27th birthday, he sat down at his computer and decided today was gonna be the day where he allowed himself to admit that he still wants to make games and, yeah, that’s exactly what he’s gonna do.

So that’s where we are. That ugly screenshot you see above is what I hammered out after a couple hours of messing around in GameMaker: Studio — a simple platformer with basic physics. It’s not fun, but whatever — it was worth it. I’m learning again, which is a life-affirming thing and I’ll be damned if anyone argues otherwise. And more importantly, every basic problem I overcome through sheer tenacity and frustration reveals an exponentially greater set of possibilities for the future.

For example: After two hours of tedious trial-and-error, I learned how to make a cake jump and fall with gravity. But in that process I learned a lot of intricacies about how GameMaker’s interface works and became familiar with its (fortunately very Javascript-like) scripting syntax. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

Anyway. So why now? And why put all this down on my blog when I’ve probably written similar diatribes about how I love games and want to marry them but haven’t put any of those words into action?

Because I need to get it out there. I’m gonna make games, dammit, and I’m gonna make them now, and they’re gonna suck, and I’m gonna love it. And I’ll keep making them until they stop sucking or I realize my raison d’être is actually, I dunno, macrame or billiards or LARPing. One way or another, it’s gonna happen.

Gabe Newell at UT

gaben

I went to see Gabe Newell speak today at the University of Texas. The lecture was called “On Productivity, Economics, Political Institutions and the Future of Corporations: Reflections of a Video Game Maker.” You can check out a video of Newell giving the same talk from an earlier session here. My head’s swimming with excitement and ideas after hearing him talk so I figured this’d be a good place for me to put that all down.

Gabe’s discussion focused on a few major themes like disruption and a post-corporate organization structure that he envisions for producing goods and services (which Valve is modeled on). His thesis is that corporations served an important purpose in setting market value and controlling supply and demand before the internet really became an inseparable part of life, but because information is so easily exchanged now these institutions are far more restrictive and less effective. It’s the same model for why he thinks open source will always eventually win out over closed.[1]

His thinking is that in this world, people are most effective when they:

  • Organize voluntarily and organically
  • Develop as generalists and not by leaning too hard into a specialty
  • Are free to apply themselves wherever they’re most interested and most driven to success (hence the totally flat company organization at Valve)

He cites examples of how Valve dabbling in new ways for players to contribute more to their games’ experiences (like TF2 hats) has created cottage industries where people are making decent money. There are some TF2 item sellers who bring in more than $500,000 per year, and he cited more than a few game devs who moonlight as Steamworks content-makers who make more from selling their virtual goods on Steam than they do at their industry jobs.

Maybe the most interesting part of the talk was Valve’s new definition of a game. I’m paraphrasing, but he described it as something like “an environment or experience that empowers players to be as productive as possible.” He pointed out that the word “fun” was nowhere in his definition; instead, Valve sees the future of successful game design as hinging entirely on how well it gives game-players a solid foundation for creating their own contributions within a shared space. Modeling new TF2 weapons and creating custom Left 4 Dead campaigns is barely even scratching the surface.

tl;dr: I realized today I want to spend a good part of my life helping to make these things happen. And there’s no time like the present, right?


  1. The example he gave here was The New York Times vs. Reddit. The NY Times probably thinks it’s the best at what it does, but the collective blogosphere is going to do more research and ultimately correct itself toward the truth more efficiently than the best closed news service.  ↩

First Steps

I’m riding a particular surge of energy that came from getting in to work and heading out early. That never happens. It took a strange combination of factors to get me to this point:

  • Daylight Saving Time came to an end, and
  • Fun Fun Fun Fest nearly sent me to an early grave in the most awesome way possible, so
  • I passed out at like 10pm last night

Waking up before your alarm goes off is no small victory. Opening your eyes, feeling rested and realizing you’ve still got time to spare just isn’t something that happens if you have a grown-up job (I’m using that term loosely in referring to myself).

Now I’ve got some time to kill and energy to burn, so I’m turning my attention to finally diving back into game design.

I hustled over to Halcyon to set up with some coffee and GameMaker on my Mac, but the OS X version really isn’t up-to-date with the Windows version of GameMaker Studio. That’s a bummer, because GameMaker is pretty much where my sights are set as I start cutting my teeth on designing, building and iterating.

So now I’m back home and making a game where you click on a clown. Progress.

Reboot

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about being a writer ever since my last post. In my experience, if you stop doing something for long enough you’ll start to doubt whether you were actually any good at it in the first place. Maybe I wasn’t. But I’m pretty damn sure I want to get back into the routine of writing stuff, reading it, deciding what’s good about it and what sucked and iterating on the process.

Another thing I’ve picked up over the years – and maybe this just applies to me – is that a writer is most effective when they’ve got the right canvas in front of them. I use “canvas” loosely here because I’m really talking about environment. Paired with loose-leaf green tea, soft music over the speakers, a standing desk, a front porch, whatever – environment is everything. But it’s also true for the actual medium. The pile of discarded imitation Moleskines in my closet stands testament to that.

Which leads me to this blog. It’s ugly, it’s old and it’s been hacked to bits by Russian scammers in the past. Everywhere I look on here I see corrupted .php files which have since been quarantined, but the damage is done.

So here’s what I’m proposing: I’ll archive everything on here – photos, comments, everything – and start again fresh. Probably just a clean install, but you get my drift.

About that book I wrote

I.

Once upon a time, I made a book.

That book was called Silicon Sasquatch: The First Year or So. And other than the fact that it’s printed on paper, wedged between a cover and bound by glue on one side, it’s not really a book in the traditional sense. It’s primarily just a collection of the best/worst/most significant articles we posted over on the blog I edit accompanied by short running commentary and a few brief essays highlighting our few successes and many failures along the road to becoming self-published independent writers without even a modicum of planning.

So it’s not exactly a page-turner. And I knew it at the time – I knew this wasn’t the kind of book you’d shop around to potential publishers in the hopes of catching someone’s attention. So we went with a small initial run – 50 copies, paid out of pocket by three unemployed writers – and sold the majority at-cost to friends and family. A few of my friends even read it and gave me feedback, which is a courtesy I’m still deeply grateful for.

There were about eight copies from that initial run intentionally left unsold. We’d originally planned to send copies out to games writers we were inspired by – folks like Jeff Green (former EIC of Computer Gaming World/Games for Windows), Leigh Alexander (Gamasutra, Kotaku and lots more) and Christopher Grant (founder of Joystiq). Aaron, Doug and I signed the copies and began drafting personalized letters to each of the intended recipients to try to explain with ample humility what, exactly, we’d just sent them.

I was paralyzed. I never sent out the copies.

I was afraid of being seen as a me-too writer, and I feared this book would be the final nail in the coffin for a misguided and inconsistent blogger with a bachelor’s degree in a dying medium. I couldn’t deal with the possibility of being rejected or worse – ignored.

So that’s why there’s a cardboard box in my living room I don’t open anymore.

II.

This post you’re reading right now came about because I was combing through some abandoned article drafts on this blog and came across an untitled draft from December 2010. It began like this:

In hindsight, maybe it was stupid of me to spend my free time working on a book for an incredibly niche audience for the last couple months when I could have focused my efforts on moving out or finding work or, you know, not going broke.

After the book was printed and the copies had been distributed, I wasn’t sure what to do next. I’d spent two months knee-deep in the project, spending hours each day on layout, writing, editing and coordination with the rest of the blog staff. After years of dull work experience and more than a few false starts on my way to adulthood, I’d finally had a project where I could give it everything I had. And when that was gone, I began to worry.

Months passed. I was no closer to a job and the relatively minimal income needed to move out of my mom’s house than I was before I began working on the book. So I started looking for the next big thing I could take on.

Life intervened. I found a job I love and I moved to Austin. The rest is history.

III.

In the 18 months since I moved to Austin, I hadn’t thought much about the book until just recently. I relegated it to that cache of unusual facts about my life  (in the same vein as my childhood unicycling skills) that I’d offer up for get-to-know-you icebreaker sessions around groups of new people.

And then something unexpected happened: my book was featured on the syllabus for Writing About the Arts, a class I took in my last year as an undergrad. I was floored and even a little embarrassed – the book was kind of a mess, I thought. Do I really want a class of other prospective journalists to suffer through it?

It wasn’t until Aaron and I spoke to the class about the book and answered their questions that I realized that we’d actually done something meaningful. Yeah, it was a weird little book about an extraordinarily niche topic, but it represented years of work and countless thousands of hours of focus on the things we’re most passionate about. Knowing that our conviction and our experiences resonated with other people is humbling.

It took me a long time to understand this, but doing what matters to you and making things you’re passionate about is significant, no matter the medium or intended audience.

Or: If you give a shit about something, it shows.

IV.

I was flipping through the book this morning and landed on the final page. I’d written an essay about moving on from college and, really, from the book project itself:

Making a book is probably the most self-indulgent thing a person can do, but as long as someone draws inspiration from the trials we’ve endured and the lessons we’ve learned, I’ll feel like everything I’ve done for Silicon Sasquatch was worth the thousands of hours of writing, editing and doubt. And hey — even if the book sucks, it’s still Step One. It’s a real thing we can point to and claim as our own. The only way to go from here is up.

Top 25 Albums of 2011 – #1

The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
January 14th, 2011 

I know what you’re thinking — hometown bias, right? Yeah, I’ll admit there’s something kinda reassuring in knowing that one of your favorite bands lives in the place of your birth. And it’s also true that I’ve been a huge fan of The Decemberists since I discovered their debut album, Castaways and Cutouts, nearly a decade ago in 2003. By my count, I’ve seen them live eight times — way more than any other band. So when The Decemberists put out a new record, it’s probably fair to say that I’ll go into it expecting to like it.

But to be honest, I haven’t really loved one of their albums since Picaresque in 2004. 2006′s The Crane Wife and 2009′s The Hazards of Love were good, no question, but each was weighed down by its own ambition. The Crane Wife tethered its catchiest and most-radio friendly hits to a couple of ponderous multi-part epics, and The Hazards of Love, written as a rock opera, was overly dense and cumbersome as an album (though it was brilliant when the band performed it live start-to-finish).

By Decemberists’ standards, The King Is Dead isn’t overly ambitious: it’s not too long, it’s not too pretentiously biased toward the hyper-literate (although the occasional nod toward David Foster Wallace always helps) and it’s not focused exclusively on disconsolate peons and star-crossed lovers from a bygone era that never actually existed. In that sense, it probably doesn’t sound anything like a Decemberists album, but to dismiss it as a departure would be wrong. The King Is Dead features each band member in their element, with frontman Colin Meloy’s rich lyrics, twangy guitar and vocals sounding more at home than ever. But the grinding guitars and deliberate, pounding 4/4 refrains of Hazards have been abandoned; instead, this is an album with a light, free, soulful and rich sound.

The album was recorded in a barn in Happy Valley, Oregon, just a few miles southeast of Portland (and just a few minutes from a job I had shortly after college). I can’t help but think of home when I listen to this record. If you’ve never been to Oregon, this album does a pretty good job of approximating how the Willamette Valley feels. Does that make any sense? Probably not.

Ultimately, there’s nothing I’d change about this album. Each song has its place and its own story to tell, and it flows from start to finish effortlessly. And if nothing else, it’s by far the album I’ve listened to more than anything else in all of 2011. It’s The Decemberists’ best album yet by a huge margin, and at its heart, it’s simply great American music. And because it aspires to such humble goals, it succeeds beyond all expectations.

is a guy who writes stuff and makes stuff too