By Nick Howland
The King is Dead marks a departure from the concept album format that fan’s have been accustomed to, which includes 2009’s The Hazard’s of Love. While most Decemberist’s albums include songs that stretch into the double digits, the longest track on the newest album just reaches five and a half minutes. Front man Colin Meloy and company decided to scale down their theatricality and opt for an album that features well-constructed songs that stand by themselves and are unified with a cohesive sound.
The band describes The King is Dead as a “barn album.” This description fits the album perfectly, not just because the music itself was recorded in a barn (the Pendarvis farm in Portland), but because the songs are stripped down to the bare and beautiful minimum. Each song has an organic and raw emotional resonance. Sonically, the songs resemble that of early Neil Young with hints of R.E.M. And this is not by chance. Meloy refers to Neil Young’s Harvest as the “quintessential barn album.” And the slight R.E.M. resemblance? It may have to do with Peter Buck being recruited for three of the ten tracks on The King is Dead, including “Don’t Carry It All,” “Calamity Song,” and their first single off the album, “Down by the Water.” Buck adds his signature jangle-infused guitar riffs to Colin’s comforting yet strong vocals, the clashing percussions of John Moen, Jennny Connlee’s dramatic accordion and saloon style piano, Chris Funk’s smooth guitar, and Nate Query’s subtly driving bass.
Although The King is Dead is a departure in many ways for the Portland based band, the lyrical and instrumental basis is still very much intact at the core of every song. While Meloy’s past lyrics have mainly focused on old English and Japanese fables, The King is Dead focuses on the rustic, American landscapes surrounding the band as well as the Americana and country songs that very much are associated with the American outdoors. The Pendarvis farm, the 80-acre farm where the band recorded, is alive in each track. The subject matter throughout The King is Dead is full of picturesque verbal depictions and references to the world outside. Robust rivers, flowering fields, antiquated old west towns, and rich meadows all play a significant role in creating the imagery and atmosphere throughout the record. One of the most visually interesting lines on the album is found on “July Hymn;” “Here’s a hymn to welcome in the day/Heralding a summer’s early sway/ And all the bulbs all coming in/ To begin/ The thrushes bleating battle with the wrens/ Disrupts my reverie again” It is not hard for the listener to image themselves lying in a grassy field with their favorite pair of headphones on, sun gently warming their shoulders, a slight breeze ruffling their hair, and the sweet smell of summer in the air.
Simplicity is one of the most gorgeous features of this album and, in taking a step back from their normal, intensely detailed theatrical albums, The Decemberists have crafted a record that rivals Picaresque, and have ultimately presented us with their greatest albums to date. Putting The King is Dead on repeat is somehow just not enough.
Check out a live performance of the track “Rise To Me” off of The King Is Dead below.