Front-man Colin Meloy may be a Smiths fan, but don’t be convinced the title, a play on The Queen Is Dead, is another Decemberists album inspired heavily by English musicians.
In the past, the quintet innovated ’60s English folk into a new genre called ork-pop, and in the last few albums have blended Sabbath-esque oeuvres for a sound that nearly resurrected Jethro Tull. But, The King Is Dead brings the Portland, OR band back stateside, enlisting singer-songwriter Gillian Welch and R.E.M.’s Peter Buck to polish a different sound, or “The turning of a season,” as Meloy describes it in the opening lines of “Don’t Carry It All.”
Following 2009’s The Hazards of Love—complete with an overture, explicit storyline and dozens of sonic crashes and booms, The King Is Dead is a departure that pumps fresh air in the music with quiet songs and slow tempos. Meloy introduces a harmonica to the band’s bevy of instruments, and brings Jenny Conlee’s accordion back—a sound that’s been minimized in recent albums.
Buck’s guitar is prevalent in songs including “The Calamity Song,” “This is Why We Fight” and the album’s first single, “Down By the Water,” and bridges the band’s new sound with their alternative roots—another hat-tip to the members’ American influences. The band also brings together the different sound with Fleetwood Mack-ian acoustic progressions and recurring beck-and-calls between Meloy and Welch. “Rise to Me,” “Dear Avery” and twin ditties “January Hymn” and “June Hymn” carve out quiet acoustics for strolling afternoons, while “Rox In a Box” and “All Arise!” reach out to the more playful sounds of fiddles and Chris Funk’s pedal steel guitar.
An album with a mostly Americana sound, The King Is Dead is a world away from anything the band has released in its decade-long existence, but it’s not hard to distinguish that it’s the same band that released The Tain and “The Rake’s Song.” Some remnants of the Decemberists sound and Meloy’s signature narrative songwriting are still there.
Like some of the band’s songs whose dark lyrics are set to upbeat tempos (e.g. “Culling of the Fold,” “We Both Go Down Together”), “Calamity Song” trips lackadaisically through lyrics of the apocalypse while Meloy coos “ahh-ooh” along drummer John Moen’s rim shots.
“This Is Why We Fight” brings electric guitar in with banjo, accordion and harmonica, and comes through as the rocker on the album, but with lyrical maturity beyond trapeze artists and military wives.
The King Is Dead is a cut above what the quintet has released before, yet their musical and lyrical maturity doesn’t stop them from continuing to explore genres. The Decemberists are a renaissance band, and they transition with ease from prog-rock, brought to life by multiple drums and guitars, to country music seemingly found in the Virginia backwoods.
The King Is Dead Tracklisting
- Don’t Carry It All
- Calamity Song
- Rise To Me
- Rox In a Box
- January Hymn
- Down By the Water
- All Arise!
- June Hymn
- This Is Why We Fight
- Dear Avery