The Decemberists have always been an ambitious bunch. Steady growing with every new release, the band finally seemed to reach their tipping point with 2009’s The Hazards of Love; their Big Rock Opera that was performed live essentially as a 50 minute song. And while it wasn’t exactly a misfire, THoL felt like a little too much; a little too rawkish, a little too progressive, convoluted, and pretentious to swallow. All of this makes The King Is Dead a collective exhale; the “let’s get basic” record that inevitably follows up a complicated work.
In fact, The King Is Dead makes a lot of sense if you think of it as a reaction to The Hazards of Love. Down to earth (well, as down to earth as The Decemberists will ever get), almost exclusively acoustic, and sweet, The King Is Dead is folksy almost to the point of alternative country. Acoustic guitars, fiddles, piano, and harmonica are at the forefront of this album, making it feel as warm and inviting as a warm blanket on a cold day. One aspect of The Decemberists that rarely gets any coverage is how many understated songs they have; for snappy numbers like “The Legionnaire’s Lament” or “The Chimbley Sweep”, there’s been tunes like “Cocoon” or “Red Right Ankle”.
That’s not to say that this is a lifeless record. “Calamity Song” shuffles along at a jaunty pace with a catchy chorus, and the dramatic “Down By the Water” could soundtrack a Western. Both songs (as well as the excellent opener “Don’t Carry It All”) feature R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, who fits in seamlessly with the band. Other guests include Gillian Welch, Laura Viers, and Dave Rawlings, who contribute some backing vocals (“June Hymn” in particular benefits from their presence). Other attention grabber, the penultimate “This Is Why We Fight” doesn’t aim for the stratosphere, but the one-two guitar and drum punch of it is certainly welcome.
Six albums in, it feels a little redundant to bring up that The Decemberists are excellent instrumentalists, but it still bears saying. John Moen’s tasteful drumming is particularly noteworthy, as is Colin Meloy’s guitar work, which carries “January Hymn” (one of the prettiest songs the band has ever written). Meloy is still in great songwriter form as well. These aren’t songs meant for a stage, but for a campfire; the rustic silliness of “Rox in the Box”, the lovely “Rise to Me”, and the imagery of “Don’t Carry It All” are all quality work.
At the same time, The King Is Dead can be somewhat frustrating as a record. Knowing what the band is capable of, it’s a little disappointing not to hear them venture outside of their designated comfort zone. A quality album, absolutely, but not always the most interesting one. But still, it’s good to see a band that’s not afraid to try new sounds, four stars.
tl;dr: If you’ve got an itch for back-to-basics indie folk, The Decemberists have you covered. Four stars.