Review: The King is Dead by The Decemberists

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Rating: 8.5/10

Time for an admission: I’ve only really listened to The Hazards of Love (the previous Decemberists record) once.  By that I mean once through, which is ultimately the only correct way to hear the sprawling rock opera.  But it’s exhausting.  The songs are dense, the storyline overwhelming, and the music not immediately welcoming.  I was disappointed, especially considering the high praise I’ve had for the band in the past.

But that all changes with The King is Dead.  Suddenly the Decemberists are accessible again, and it’s thanks to a real change in musical attitude.

Full review after the break:

The biggest change and most important addition to the Decemberists in this record is the guitar of Peter Buck.  The legendary R.E.M. member shows up on three crucial songs in the course of the album.  This seems like a small percentage, but the tone and feel of these tracks carries over to all other songs.  Buck’s inimitable jangle and precision truly opens the Decemberist sound.  While some may miss the ambition of Hazards, this sound is focused, warmer and more enjoyable.

The next important thing to note is the country-style of The King is Dead.  Many of the tracks feature that telltale twang and some even bring the harmonica in.  This is a red flag for me – country stands as probably my least favorite musical genre thanks to the pain caused by such twang.  The Decemberists manage to do this more tastefully than typical country, and so the pain is dulled slightly.  However, the effect is still there, which does impact my impression slightly.

But beyond the new sounds, is this still the Decemberists?  The answer is a resounding yes, thanks to Colin Meloy.  Mr. Meloy continues to croon in his distinctive voice and offers his now-typical lyrical ruminations.  Complex vocabulary, witty phrasing and interesting stories continue to define the band.  This will likely be a point of contention – while they’ve earned a reputation as a book-smart band, they may also represent pretentiousness for some.  I have always enjoyed their attention to detail, but some will still dislike the style (even in this lighter version).

Three of the key tracks are, not surprisingly, the songs featuring Peter Buck.  In particular, the lead single “Down by the Water” is instantly infectious, with a tight rhythm and catchy vocals.  You will be humming the melody long after you first hear the song.  Another brilliant tune with Buck is “Calamity Song,” a reflection on an apocalyptic dream where “scores of innocents die.”  But in fitting with the record, this song is light and enjoyable, offering a strange pairing of ringing guitars and destructive imagery.  It’s fitting that the song notes, “All that remains is the arms of the angels.”  This song must be that side of the equation.

Curiously, the best song is not one of the Peter Buck tracks.  Instead, it is perhaps the most arresting songs in the Decemberists’ catalog, penultimate track “This is Why We Fight.”  Here, Meloy’s vocals are distorted just slightly, echoing above a menacing bass and drums.  But the whole thing works thanks to a Buck-emulating guitar, quietly and carefully plucking behind the rest of the sounds.  The song is part-terrifying, part-beautiful and manages to draw some of the strongest responses I’ve ever had to a Decemberists song.  While it still ends short of “Eli, the Barrow Boy” and “Of Angels and Angels,” this is one of their most effective songs.

While the Decemberists have toned back the ambition from their previous effort, the quality of The King is Dead is undeniable.  Light sound, enjoyable melodies and a welcome influence from R.E.M. make this a worthy purchase.  Unfortunately, the presence of country-twang does detract slightly from the experience.  Thankfully, the strength of composition far outweighs this weakness and leaves The King is Dead as a solid and already memorable record.

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