Decemberists – The King Is Dead (Music Review)

The King Is Dead cover

Decemberists - The King Is Dead

To start, let’s get this straight: The King Is Dead is not The Decemberists’ “country album” or “folk album”. It has some elements of those, with an acoustic guitar taking lead and the mandolin, tambourine, and harmonica occasionally appearing as well. But the music never settles for long within the strictures of either genre. If anything, a vague term like “The Decemberists’ Americana album” would work.

It’s obvious why people are looking to define The King Is Dead, though. It’s a startling new direction for the band. While The Decemberists have never been afraid of change, this is a sudden reversal from the sea shanties and gritty 18th-century settings.

Many songs still fit comfortably within our expectations of The Decemberists. “Rox In The Box” is full of winking affectation for a granite mine that’s a full century and several social strata removed from Colin Meloy’s current world, while lifting riffs from the traditional Scottish “Raggle Taggle Gypsy”. (It’s also a disturbingly cheerful song about a serious tragedy.) “January Hymn” is a simple song with first-person narration that Meloy’s voice makes intensely personal. But other songs are only identifiably by The Decemberists because of that distinctive voice, and that highlights the boundaries that the band has generally stayed within before: Meloy’s nasal voice has always worked either as a quirk to make his narrators seem human and present, or as a comfortable vehicle for over-literate affectation. Hearing him sing without either of those elements is occasionally jarring. He never strays from his strengths for long enough to make me argue that a different vocalist would be better, but the thought did cross my mind a few times. Fortunately, the songwriting is so consistently strong that any complaints about the vocals seem out of place.

Given that the first few tracks emphasize this departure from the band’s normal sound, it’s obviously intended to be the purpose of the album. These songs break from the clear, story-driven lyrics of the past for more inscrutable meanings, and command their simple Americana instruments to create a powerful, confident wall of sound that would go straight to the top of the pop charts in a slightly different universe. This album deserves to bring in an entirely new set of fans without ever alienating the existing ones.

Knowing The Decemberists, it won’t be more than an album or two before they have shed this style for something new. In a way, that’s too bad. A band could spend its entire career exploring the sonic territory uncovered by The King Is Dead. The catchy, pop-oriented feel mixes with complex instrumentation and lyrics to create one of the best albums of their career.

Grade: A

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