The Decemberists took a lot out of themselves with their 2009 epic song cycle The Hazards Of Love. It came directly after their other concept album The Crane Wife, and frontman Colin Meloy now says that, with their new album, he “just wanted to play some normal songs!”. So the quintet holed up in a converted barn outside of their home city of Portland, with the aim of returning to the songwriting style of their first three albums.
The focus has shifted back to stunning lyrical complexity and simple yet beautiful vocal melodies. Meloy’s delivery is as earnest and warm as ever, making his descriptions of sweeping landscapes seem unpretentious. The King Is Dead benefits hugely from the guest vocals of folk royalty Gillian Welch on seven of the ten songs. Welch and Meloy’s voices lock together perfectly in harmony on tracks like ‘Down By The Water’.
Long time fans will miss the way The Decemberists’ earlier songs tell different characters’ stories, with Meloy slipping in and out of these fictional personas with conviction and ease. Instead, the lyrical focus lies on the pastoral landscapes that informed and surrounded the album. The bucolic setting of the recording can be clearly heard throughout the album. The slide guitar and drifting harmonica are done tastefully enough to avoid falling into cliche’s.
Meloy admits to the influence of R.E.M. on the album; he even got their guitarist Peter Buck on board. He plays guitar on ‘Down By The Water’ and ‘Calamity Song’, and mandolin on ‘Don’t Carry It All’.
Another guest on the album is Annalisa Tornfelt, who plays in bluegrass band Black Prairie with the other members of the band. ‘All Arise!’, record opener ‘Don’t Carry It All’ and ‘Rox In The Box’ feature her sharp violin strains.
It’s refreshing to know that The Decemberists have kept a sense of perspective, and have not drifted into musical obscurity by making another risky concept album. They describe the transition between Hazards and their new album as “like going from reading a novel to reading a bunch of short stories.”