Put simply, The King is Dead is the first album from The Decemberists that I like a lot. 2006’s The Crane Wife was the closest before it, but even that album’s handful of really great songs were offset for me by the prog tendencies that were soon brought to an extreme on 2009’s The Hazards of Love, which I thought was The Decemberists at their most insufferable. Obviously, I’m not a hardcore/longtime fan of Colin Meloy and his more-literate-than-thou band by any stretch, but The King is Dead has gone a long way to change that opinion. Meloy still peppers his lyrics with words that no English speaker would ever use in an actual conversation, but the chiming folk-rock found on these ten songs sound like The Decemberists have finally figured out what they do best. It’s not that The King is Dead is some kind of dramatic reinvention for the band – they’ve always been rooted in folk music and tradition – but this album strips away (most of) the pretense and just allows Meloy’s songs to shine through.
It’s a record built on simpler ideas, and though I don’t usually go for this kind of peaceful, easy folk-rock nearly as much at 35 as I did at 25 (duh…I’m younger than that now), The Decemberists really nail it here. I realize that the succinct arrangements and lack of medieval concepts and/or elaborate story songs on this record are likely a diversion for a band that has leaned more and more towards excess as their career has progressed, but perhaps the fact that The King Is Dead debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts (selling nearly 5x as many copies as The Hazards of Love did on its first week) will persuade Meloy to channel his inner R.E.M./Gram Parsons more often. Highlights for me are the wistful pair of hymns – “January Hymn” and “June Hymn”, the Wildflowers-era Tom Petty thump of “Don’t Carry It All”, and the gorgeous folk-ballad “Rise to Me”, which is one of many songs here that features the background vocals of Gillian Welch. Highly recommended stuff.
MP3 :: Down By the Water
(from The King Is Dead. Buy here)