The King Is Dead
By Scott Roberts
The term “folk-rock” has been used to describe electric-based music with acoustic leanings (or vice-versa) for nearly 50 years and has always felt a bit unsatisfying or vague, and may now even be bordering on archaic. However, there may not be a more suitable descriptor for the music of Portland-based The Decemberists in general, and, more specifically, for the music on their latest release, The King Is Dead. After forays into near-prog rock territory on their more epic and conceptual last two releases, The Hazards Of Love (2009) and The Crain Wife (2006), the band’s sixth full-length release opts for a simpler, more pastoral sound with quietly beautiful results.
Recorded in a converted barn on the outskirts of Portland, the band’s stripped down approach and Tucker Martine’s no-frills production throughout are perfectly captured in the album’s first single, the instantly familiar “Down By The Water.” Led by the staunchly nerdy and unapologetically unhip Colin Meloy, the band’s mainstays — simple though richly-melodic tunes and sometimes overly annunciated, evocatively poetic lyrics—are still in full-force here. By his own admission, Meloy penned a couple of songs for this album, including “Down By The Water,” that were a direct homage to R.E.M., one of his musical heroes. Rather than deny the influence or try to hide it, Meloy asked Peter Buck to play on the single (as well as “Calamity Song” and “Don’t Carry It All”) and Buck’s effectively executed guitar part sounds so much like his part on R.E.M.’s “The One I Love,” due to a similar chord structure and tempo, that it could almost be a sample rather than a newly recorded part. The song is also elevated by the haunting harmonies of vocalist Gillian Welch, who guests on seven of the album’s 10 cuts, but whose distinctive voice is unfortunately often mixed too low and thus occasionally robbed of its uniqueness.
From the nearly acoustic-guitar-only Dylanesque strum of “June Hymn” (where Meloy proves to be one of contemporary music’s few lyricists who make the words “panoply” and “barony” sound natural) to the relatively rocking electric jangle of “This Is Why We Fight,” The Decemberists have once again released a set of songs on The King Is Dead that may not necessarily change the world but somehow manages to make it a slightly more tolerable place to live.