Looking back at The Decemberists’ rise to fame, everything has always circulated around the sheer talents of head songwriter and singer Colin Meloy. The band has been a catalyst for Meloy’s fantastic ideas of twisting sordid concepts into illustriously lush and diverse albums. Through these concept albums they also developed the aspect of being a band that was not only musical but multi-dimensional. Gone are the sweeping suites with tempo and mood shifts (a la something like the three-part “The Island”) with their newest album, The King is Dead – a supposed nod to The Smiths’ album of The Queen is Dead. Meloy has stripped down the band’s progressive and often, epic, sound for a country drive that permeates the album’s ten songs.
Like any of the greatest current musicians, Meloy has always invested in the ability of being able to research past influences. He’s contributed his own writing to describe his personal love for albums and has never shied away from mentioning impactful artists who have left a lasting impression on him. The album’s music showcases a focus on the band’s strongest assets: Meloy’s gifted songwriting and richly decorated melodies with subtle counter melodies and harmonies. And while there is simplicity to take notice of here – such as on the springing “This is Why We Fight” and its guitar shuffle – the band still resonates with an impressive pulse of heart and soul.
Lead single and opener “Don’t Carry it All” is one of the famously publicized songs that features R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and it entertainingly introduces the band to a newly enshrined sound. Coming off the long-winded and often ‘epic-overlord’ of The Hazards of Love, there is comfort in hearing Meloy and the band sing a dashingly wonderful melody. Buck solidifies the homage The Decemberists are paying to R.E.M. with a guitar that never overshadows but purely supplements the gathering voices, flourishing strings and chiming harmonica. Through the album’s relaxing vibe, you might miss the downright memorable sting of “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” or even the children’s choir but not nearly enough to dismiss the subtle sweetness found on The King is Dead.
Memorable feelings is probably the lasting complaint many would have against the 40 minutes of music; even with Gillian Welch coming on to sing corresponding vocals with Meloy on “Down by the Water,” there isn’t much conveyed to leave you with some kind of foreboding love. Still, the Bruce Springsteen swing shakes up the style with a dancing guitar and introspective words; Welch and Meloy sing well together and with Buck’s guitar to support, it’s also distinctively clear that The Decemberists have made their own influences proud. Make no mistake about it: this is a clear change in direction and one that took an assertive mind to create but in the end, it’s still containing a band that has singularly left their own impact for many years now.
It’s hard to imagine exactly where The Decemberists would go from here. Speculation always seems to be futile and it’s not as if they’re the kind of band to go years and years without making another album. In the meantime, The King is Dead serves as enough solid music to lull us over until the next official album. Whether it’s another epic fest that includes various suites and convoluted stories, or the sunny country of asking her to stay with you tonight on “All Arise!”, the quality of the music will never be an issue.