Throughout their entire career, the Decemberists have been nothing if not ambitious. Their debut record, Castaways and Cutouts, sounded unlike anything else around at the time, Colin Meloy’s hyper-literate lyrics and the lush, complex melodies came together to create a unique sound that would define the band for the better part of the early 2000s. They closed out their time on independent labels with Picaresque, an adventurous album that featured ruminations on war, youth sports, and an eight and a half minute story of a sailor being swallowed by a giant whale. The band was at their creative peak, and it was truly a sight to see.
Since the band moved to Capital records, starting with their 2006 album The Crane Wife, they have continued to display that ambition, but with diminishing returns. The Crane Wife is an enjoyable album to listen to, though it never seems quite as fun as Picaresque or any of their earlier material. Their last album, The Hazards of Love, was a proggy opera, which had its moments, but frequently felt too big for its britches. Ambition is a good thing, but it seemed the Decemberists were a balloon of it, just inches away from popping.
With this in mind, I went into their newest effort, The King is Dead, expecting to hear the next big leap for the band. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to hear a laid back, fairly simple record that may not set the world on fire, but is incredibly enjoyable to listen to. Largely gone are the dense stories and complex arrangements, with softer country and Americana homages to R.E.M., Dylan, and Neil Young in their place. I don’t know if Meloy got tired of writing grand stories or if the band was just choosing to explore a softer side, but whatever it was, it works to tremendous effect.
The R.E.M. influence is fairly obvious, especially given the band’s guitarist, Peter Buck, guests on a few tracks, each of which echo the signature style the band had in the 80’s and early 90’s, and it’s hard not to notice the similarities. “Calamity Song” sounds slightly like a sped up version of “7 Chinese Brothers,” while lead single “Down By the Water” sounds like the kid brother of “The One I Love.” But rather than coming off as cheap imitation, the band makes the sound their own, much as Arcade Fire took Springsteen’s sound and imposed it on their own on songs like “Keep the Car Running.” The band’s voice is not lost in homage, it’s always present and in the foreground.
The other main guest on the album, Gillian Welch, appears on seven songs, filing in the band’s always open spot for a female counterpart to Meloy, previously filled by Petra Hayden, Laura Veirs (who appears here as well), and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Warden. Her smooth voice adds a certain soothing sense to each track she appears on, mostly in contrast to Meloy’s sharper voice. “Rise to Me” melodically sounds like a Neil Young Song, with Welch adding a bit of sweetness to the chorus.
The only time we really hear a bit of classic Decemberists is on “This is Why We Fight,” which is reminiscent of early tracks like “Song for Myla Goldberg,” with the country tinge of the rest of the album mixed in. It’s an interesting statement from the band, given how ambitious they’ve been over the last six years, that they’re revisiting a more simplistic sound, perhaps as a way of creatively recharging their batteries. Most of all, it finds the band more relaxed then they have in years, which is truly fun to listen to.
Michael’s Score: 74
TUiW Grade: B