“The King is Dead”
January 2011; Capitol Records
By Emily J Ramey
I’m pretty proud to be able to say I’ve been following The Decemberists and their musical endeavors for the majority of the band’s existence. Of the now six full-length albums they’ve produced, I’ve watched and waited for and loved five of them, discovering the Seattle sextet in my junior year of high school. The Decemberists’ efforts since then – the epic Picaresque in 2005, the major label debut The Crane Wife in 2006, 2009’s rock opera The Hazards of Love – have each been valiantly ambitious and wholly unique while keeping true to the band’s organic sound and colorful flair for the dramatic.
And the band’s most recent work is no exception. The King is Dead is a bold, tightly knit collection of smoothly woven, rustic tales of love and guilty consciences. This time though, The Decemberists are folksier and more effortless than ever, straying from their characteristically extravagant stylings for subtler, sleeker tunes. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and singer/songwriter Gillian Welch, both of whom are featured prominently throughout, seem to keep Colin Meloy and company tethered without stifling the band’s sensational themes or erudite prose.
Rollicking opener “Don’t Carry It All” maintains a familiar swagger, wild with harmonica and brazen violins, but “Calamity Song” settles into an easy, upbeat melody with something almost countrified lingering about the chorus. The sea shanty-ish “Rox in the Box” boasts a blustery, minor tonality, complete with a saucy accordion and darkly esoteric lines like, “Of dirt you’re made and to dirt you will return.”
The single, “Down By the Water,” is well chosen; The Decemberists have never been so radio-friendly as on this balmy, churning melody. And “This is Why We Fight” is a brawny and cavernous track, spinning brooding words into bravado: “And when we die, we will die/With our arms unbound/And this is why/This is why we fight.”
Today, The Decemberists are well seasoned and comfortable without sacrificing charisma or radiance. The King is Dead is perhaps little less fanfare than we have come to expect but remains well contrived, expertly accomplished, and stunningly felt. Bravo, Meloy; bravo.