CD Review: The Decemberists' 'The King Is Dead'
My 17-year-old daughter and I both love the Decemberists, but I suspect for different reasons. She loves their wildly dramatic flair, their old-world story songs, and that British tone. I love all that too, but what gets me is the band’s sound — rock guitars mixing with banjo and other assorted cachophony-inducing instruments, the minor-chord melodies.
It will be interesting to see how some Decemberists fans will take to “The King Is Dead,” the band’s superb sixth studio album, because it literally drops all the fancy pretensions of the recent past and really gets back to its stripped-down Americana roots.
The album falls somewhere between early Neil Young-era folk-rock and a ’90s REM jangle (Peter Buck actually plays on some cuts). Throw in some Gillian Welch backing vocals on eight of 10 songs and you’ve got an album with an alt-country feel.
“Don’t Carry It Off,” the first song, showcases the new (old) sound: Hard-strummed acoustic guitar, strong drumbeat and harmonica, and Buck adds some tasty mandolin. The song could have right at home on Young’s “Harvest” album. Gillian’s voice blends beautifully with Colin Meloy’s, which in this context loses that “British” accent.
On “Calamity Song,” Buck’s 12-string rings out, bringing the REM feel to the forefront. A pedal steel and harmonica ring out in “Rise to Me.” The Neil Young references keep coming back to me. “Rox in the Box” may be the closest thing to a Decemberists story song, about the toil of old-time miners: “And you won’t make a dime/On this gray Granite Mountain Mine/Of dirt you’re made and to dirt you will return.” The songs are creative and feel very true to their sound.
The album’s single, “Down By the Water” is probably the most rocking tune here. It’s got that REM feel and the Colin/Gillian vocals adds a great tension. “June Hymn” is a nice, acoustic ballad as is “Dear Avery,” which closes the album.
It will be interesting to see how this album is received by true fans of the band and where the Decemberists will go next. But for this listener, “The King Is Dead” is a playlist keeper.