You could make a convincing case for The Decemberists being the most consistent band of the 21st Century so far. The King Is Dead is their sixth full-length LP, the latest in a run of uninterrupted quality which began with Castaways and Cutouts in 2002. Over the course of their career, they’ve seemed more than content to plough their own furrow in the margins, slowly accumulating fans and sales through word of mouth and good, old-fashioned first-rate songwriting. Upon listening to more recent Decemberists records, the most striking features are the often long, epic tracks and the meandering stories told. Colin Meloy knows how to spin a yarn, and his third-person tales of subterfuge and murder are regularly more compelling than even the most gripping crime novel. This trend reached its natural conclusion in 2009 withThe Hazards of Love; a prog-rock opera of sorts, where a single tale was told over the course of the album, featuring multiple characters and repeated riffs throughout.
The Hazards of Love was so rich and complex, and had so many layers of intrigue, that it still feels as if it hasn’t fully revealed all its charms; every listen provides something new. This brings about the rather unusual position of the world maybe not yet requiring a new Decemberists record. It may be a deliberate move away from the ideas that underpinned The Hazards of Love, but The King Is Dead is as different to its predecessor as it’s possible to be while still remaining very much a Decemberists record.
Those enormous opuses? Gone: only one track on The King Is Dead clocks in at over five minutes - in fact, the whole album barely breaks the forty minute mark. Those enveloping third-person narratives? Not quite gone, but there’s a definite lyrical shift towards more impenetrable first-person tales.
Initially, these changes may appear worrying - have The Decemberists lost what made them so distinctive? It depends on how you look at it; it may not bear their most striking hallmarks, but it’s still a marvellous batch of songs. Shorn of lofty concepts, the band are able to relax into their music more, and there’s a much more pastoral undertone here. Folk singer Gillian Welch joins the quintet for lead single, Down By The Water, and is a revelation, her harmonies lifting an already fantastic song to an even higher level, much like Emmylou Harris did on Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.
The Decemberists display a more prevalent Americana influence throughout The King Is Dead; strong harmonies are pushed to the fore and the overall result isn’t all that dissimilar to what Midlake achieved withThe Trials of Van Occupanther. The lyrical change of direction happily hasn’t blunted Meloy’s verbal sharpness; the passage where he tenderly intones, “You were waking/The day was breaking/A panoply of song” in June Hymn is enormously affecting. This restraint is a recurring theme of the album, which truly allows the melodies to shine. And what melodies they are! The Decemberists have an innate gift for creating snippets and phrases that burrow their way into your subconscious and surface at the most unexpected times. The best example of this is the simply gorgeous January Hymn: an acoustic-led ballad with a comforting, reassuring warmth.
It’s not all campfire sing-alongs though. Rox in the Box is a rollicking tune with a dark, brooding undercurrent, while This Is Why We Fight features a rumbling rhythm and a chorus with real bite. There are minor quibbles - opener Don’t Carry It All is a little one-dimensional and All Arise! sails close to ambling AOR - but The King Is Dead remains a highly recommended collection of songs. It’s laudable that The Decemberists are still prepared to try something different, still prepared to break away from what they’re known for. There’s a tiny concern that they’ve lost something which set them apart from the pack, but as long as they’re still capable of writing such strong material, they’ll retain their deserved reputation.