The Decemberists’ newest album, “The King is Dead,” opens with the words, “Here we come to a changing of the season” aptly introducing a new sound for the Portland based folk-rock band. Having toyed with orchestral and operatic rock, produced albums with grand over arching themes, and gained notoriety for songs lasting upwards of 10 minutes, the Decemberists have turned their attention to the simplicity of American folk. With shorter, simpler songs, new instrumentation, and clear influences of blue grass and country, the album is a large departure from the Decemberists’ earlier work especially their last project, Hazards of Love, a dark, operatic and extremely complex concept album.
Having committed themselves to an earthy Americana feel for the King is Dead, the band decided to record in a barn on Pendarvis Family farm in Oregon. The group recorded their songs live and as a group for the most part, occasionally layering extra threads of instrumentation over the live recording. The band should be lauded for this recording method alone as it is extremely rare with the modern technology available and it allows for much more cohesion, creativity and decision-making during the recording process.
The album’s opener, “Don’t Carry it All” begins with a soaring harmonica (played by front-man Colin Meloy). With the addition of Peter Buck (of REM) on mandolin and blue grass singer Gillian Welch on backing voice, the opener is an uplifting folk anthem, setting the tone for the rest of the album. Other notable tracks include the upbeat yet apocalyptic Calamity Song, also including Peter Buck, on 12-string electric guitar. For those die-hard fans concerned that the new album would be too light or frothy, Calamity Song certainly recalls the cheerful morbidity of Crane Wife or Hazards of Love, with lyrics like:
I had a dream, You and me in the war of the end times
And I believe California succumbed to the fault line
We heaved relief as scores of innocents died
The fiddle-heavy Rox in the Box, also with Welch on vocals is at once reminiscent of European folk, with Jenny Conlee’s accordian coloring the piece, and evoking American contra dancing music. The especially simplistic lyrics and the up-tempo fiddle solo make this song the folkiest on the album.
Perhaps the most surprising tracks on the album are those that bravely court the much maligned country music genre. The raw and emotional Rise to Me sounds melodically and lyrically like a typical Decemberist track until Welch comes in adding a country color with her harmony. With the addition of guitarist Chris Funk on pedal steel, giving the whole song a real twangy sound, the piece is unexpectedly country, especially when Meloy’s harmonica and the pedal steel blend. Later on in the album, the song All Arise! has a similar country feel.
Two of the strongest tracks, January Hymn and June Hymn, are quiet, stripped down, and very earnest in their simplicity. They pay homage to the seasons with wistful and poetic lyrics like:
Pale the winter days after dark
Wandering the grey memorial park
A fleeting beating of hearts
Some of the album’s later tracks, like This is Why We Fight and All Arise! Are weaker and unremarkable but overall the album is an excellent addition to the Decemberists discography. The King is Dead may not have the edge of past albums but Meloy’s impressive wordsmithery continues to soar on every track, the extremely talented musicianship is ever-apparent, and the guest artists make an excellent contribution to the album’s sound. Ultimately the Decemberists demonstrate how to do a simple song extremely well and they have created a new sound without losing their individual style or their relevance as rock musicians.