An ever-evolving band with a history of progressively escalating ambition, The Decemberists, as of 2009’s The Hazards of Love, scarcely resembled the indie folk band that released Castaways In Cutouts back in 2002. And, quite honestly, they haven’t for some time. As early as 2004, with The Tain, the Portland-based group had been exploring epic concept-based works, further advancing with 2006’s The Crane Wife, a lengthy album whose series of title tracks took root in Japanese folklore. Three years later and this increasingly prog-leaning band had gone all in, delivering a 17-track rock opera with a long list of characters and plot twists, not to mention a proud display of unabashed geekery.
The Hazards of Love was an exciting album, an adventure in sound, yet it also marked the point at which The Decemberists had reached maximum bombast and dramatic overdrive. A step any further in that direction and what was once fun and intriguing could very easily become excessive, even unlistenable. The Decemberists understand this distinction, however, and while they may choose to push their artistic limits, they also understand when to pull back, and their sixth album, The King Is Dead, finds the band scaling back to a much simpler folk-rock sound.
The King Is Dead is strikingly subdued when held up against its massive predecessor, offering ten new songs built on mostly acoustic instruments and running times that mostly fall short of five minutes, save for “This Is Why We Fight.” It’s a refreshing change of pace, particularly in light of the ever more expansive direction in which the band had been traveling. But given the subtler nature of the songs this time around, its melodies aren’t as immediately arresting, and may take a few listens to stick. When wicked queens and massive whales are the norm, a diversion into relatively straightforward folk-rock can seem a bit underwhelming, even if it’s done well.
However, the acoustic balladry here is done well, and while the first listen may leave a light impression, the warm, organic sound reveals its charms over time. The King Is Dead most closely approximates the stripped-down approach of R.E.M.’s Automatic For the People, and for that matter, even features contributions from Peter Buck on a series of songs. Only serving to drive the R.E.M. comparisons even further is first single “Down by the Water,” which borrows liberally from “The One I Love,” itself a permutation of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My.” The English folk-inspired “Rox in the Box” is a bit closer to the jaunty Decemberists style of old, but guest vocalist Gillian Welch provides a foil to frontman Colin Meloy’s vocals, tempering them with a rootsy melancholy.
Throughout The King Is Dead, Meloy’s vocal affectations seem much more toned down, his soft delivery on the gorgeous “January Hymn” a far cry from his quirkier performances on past epics like “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” And his harmonization with Welch on songs like “June Hymn” is soothing and beautiful. Yet even on a song like “This Is Why We Fight,” easily the album’s most uptempo track, Meloy appears to be holding back a bit, his strong but restrained voice providing a foil to the harder rocking, densely layered track.
While The King Is Dead is at times a little too laid back, a bit too gentle or slight, it is, nonetheless, a satisfying new direction from a band whose flirtation with excess could have very well been its undoing otherwise. This is a pretty album, and one whose listener-friendly ballads offer exhaustion-free repeat listens. The band’s love of R.E.M. may be the one thing not too subtle about this album, but at the very least, The Decemberists have learned all the right lessons from Buck, Berry, Mills and Stipe.
R.E.M. – Automatic For the People
Whiskeytown – Strangers Almanac
Gillian Welch – Time (The Revelator)
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.