The Decemberists’ “The King Is Dead”
“The album shocked me at first, but I grew to love it more and more with every play.” -BYBeth Yeckley
out of 10
The King Is Dead
January 14, 2011
The King Is Dead ushers in a sound that opens up a giant window into the cathedral that is The Decemberists’ hallmark aggregate of heart plucking serenades, start-stop instrumentation that dances in and out with lovely and eccentric lyrics, and a slightly more sullen approach. The album deliberately ventures into a realm that I feel I can safely call “Country,” with clear inspiration drawn from the rural country outside of Portland, Oregon, where the band recorded the album.
For listeners who have grown attached to the likes of “The Engine Driver” and “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” and “Red Right Ankle,” the journey now takes a wide turn into a musical landscape that, although it appears simpler and less strange, is brewing with fun and rich Americana sounds. The album is definitely not short-handed on talent, recruiting Gillian Welch to join on vocals, R.E.M.’s legendary Peter Buck to add in guitar on three of the tracks, and violinist Annalisa Tornfelt.
With a lot of the famed, chamber pop intricacies of their music shed on The King Is Dead, The Decemberists—Colin Meloy, Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, and John Moen—offer instead charming layers of swooning strumming guitars, finger picking banjos, robust harmonica play, and the undeniable allure of the fiddle to tie it all together. Lead singer Meloy points out that, “For all my talk about how complex those records were, this one may have been harder to do,” he says. “It’s a real challenge to make simple music, and lot of times we had to deliberately hold off and keep more space. This record is an exercise in restraint.”
The album shocked me at first, but I grew to love it more and more with every play. It’s a well-balanced listen; “This Is Why We Fight” features more aggressive guitar and percussion, but also has one of the smoothest melodic presences on the album. “Down By The Water” is rich Country music, emboldened by Welch’s and Meloy’s harmonizing. “Calamity Song” is the first sign that the record wants you to have a really good time. And The Decemberists lay it out clearly on “Don’t Carry It All,” proclaiming, “Here we come to the turning of the season/ Witness to the arc towards the sun… Let the yolk fall from our shoulders/ Don’t carry it all, don’t carry it all/ We are all our hands and holders/ Beneath this bold and brilliant sun.”