The Decemberists | The King is Dead (Capitol)

The King Is Dead finds Meloy and company stepping out of the cold darkness of that fantasy world into the warm sunshine of a country field.

 
 
 
Long-time fans of The Decemberists have listened to the Portland-based band evolve from a solid-but-serviceable indie rock outfit to a group of (proverbially) tweed-jacketed, professorial nerds hanging out in the dustier corners of their own rock and roll library, playing brainy songs fit for would-be troubadours, fantasist bookworms and fans of obscure (and sometimes fictional) history. This evolution reached its apex with the band’s last album, The Hazards of Love, a deliberately melodramatic prog-rock opera featuring a shape-shifting villain and his overbearing witch-mother, among other oddities. Hazards is a strange, beautiful, over-the-top piece of music. It’s a credit to bandleader and lyricist Colin Meloy that the thing worked as well as it did, despite coming dangerously, gloriously close to collapsing under the airless weight of its own pretensions.
 
That album’s final track featured a prominent steel-guitar, which perfectly (and unexpectedly) provided just the right tone of twangy benediction to the story. Now, feeling like an extension and an expansion of that tone, The King Is Dead finds Meloy and company stepping out of the cold darkness of that fantasy world into the warm sunshine of a country field. The Decemberists are embracing the earthy twang of Nashville (by way of the Pacific Northwest) as a means to meditate on—and gently mock—familiar themes of love, loss and the fluidity of the passing seasons.
 
This directional shift on The King Is Dead gives us a collection of songs that are invigoratingly lazy, light as the summer breeze and heavy as the memory of winter. Meloy’s lyrics are no less ambitious than usual, but infused with all the steel guitar, fiddle and harmonica, songs like “Rox In The Box” and “June Hymn” sound less like intellectual exercises and more like expressions of real, physical experiences. The album opening “Don’t Carry It All” rolls and stomps across the same honky-tonk dirt-floor as “All Arise!,” while “Down By The Water” sounds like a lost, Neil Young-assisted outtake from The Crane Wife. Running throughout the album is the strong sense that even the most serious subjects, and serious-minded chroniclers of those subjects, need a break once in a while. In the end, The King Is Dead is The Decemberists taking that break, leaving the library’s confines to sing raucous songs outside under the sky, on the bare earth. B+ | John Shepherd

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