It’s tempting to compare The King is Dead with last year’s July Flame by Laura Veirs, who recorded a duet with the Decemberists on 2006’s The Crane Wife, and toured with them the following fall. The albums were released just within a year of each other, both were recorded in barns, and both are subtly gorgeous. They also represent a return to roots for both artists, with Veirs stepping down from the Chinese dragons and picaresque fantasies of “Saltbreakers” to extol the soft, cool taste of a summer peach or the career of beloved bassist, while the Decemberists leave the library for a road trip across sun-drenched fields of alt-country and folk. The difference is that, for the Decemberists, this means abandoning the whimsical, lit-geek tone that has defined their sound since “Leslie Anne Levine,” and the fact that they pull off this change in theme so effortlessly proves once and for all that there is, and always has been, far more to the band than the coy delights of their eighteenth century subject matter.
The songs rotate with a Ferris wheel spin from battle cry to lament in a way that only country rhythms could hold together. The album opener, “Don’t Carry It All,” seems to burst out from the same Oregon county fair that provided the setting for “Shiny” back in 2003, except now instead of sneaking around beneath the bleachers like teenagers in heat, the band has taken the main stage, and they have something to say to everybody.
Like most Decemberists albums, happiness is fragile and the threat of drowning is omnipresent (though nobody drowns on this one, I think). Songs like “Rox in the Box,” show that the band can mix the whimsical and the foreboding just as easily without any stage props. It’s like one of those nursery rhymes with an unpleasant history, tuneful and rollicking, with a lyrical undercurrent of death and despair. However, the melancholy of this album is most evoked by the notion expressed in the title, The King is Dead. When I saw them perform back in 2008, this might have been the joyous outcry of a successful revolution, but at the beginning of 2011 it seems to lament the demise of a beloved leader, and the deaths and disappointments of the past couple of years have been common enough to justify any number of interpretations. Nevertheless, with songs like “All Arise!” the band rallies its listeners to hang on, roll along, and never give up.
The pair “January Hymn” and “June Hymn,” provide the greatest musical similarities to Veirs – songs that reflect on the seasons like haikus with acoustic guitar and airy vocals backed alternately by lissome organ or summery harmonica. The first single, “Down By the Water,” is telling of the R.E.M. influence, but Colin Meloy has always worn his influences on his sleeve. The song has the same propulsive feel to it as “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite,” with a considerably more countrified flavor. Despite the album’s wealth of influences and range of tones, The King is Dead is remarkably cohesive, even more so than their concept album The Hazards of Love. Meloy’s songcraft has never been more precise, and the result is an album that flows effortlessly from start to finish.
It may be hard for die-hard fans like myself to accept that they may never break out the giant whale jaws again, but the most sublime moments in the Decemberists catalogue have always been those quiet, meta-fictional moments like when the narrator of “Youth and Beauty Brigade,” perhaps the perennial reader for all of the Decemberists’ stories, reflects upon the satisfaction of paying off his overdue library fines. Likewise, this is an album of small moments and big emotions, hovering around the breezy days that signal the changing of the seasons, and all of the joy they inspire, destruction they threaten, and hope they offer for renewal.
– Tom Kelly, DJ Services Director and General Enforcer