While a lot has been made of “The King Is Dead” being a more country or Americana-leaning set, the ‘90s guitar rock makes quite an appearance, too. Particularly on “Down By the Water” (hey jealousy?) and “Calamity Song,” frontman and songwriter Colin Meloy allowed for a specific showcasing of R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, doing what he does.
Buck’s contribution (or perhaps Chris Funk’s) on “This Is Why We Fight” really ties the room together and makes for one of the best songs the Decemberists have ever made. The drumming is tight; the chugga chug of acoustic properly preps the listener for this tiny war, capped by a fireside postmortem from Gillian Welch.
And it’s Welch’s voice that helps make this album stand out as more than wallflower music. Opener and single “Don’t Carry It All,” sweetened with tittering mandolins and harmonica, feature simple harmonies from the alt-country great, like a good omen that hangs over the rest of “King.”
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“Rox in the Box” incorporates elements familiar to fans of the Decemberists earliest records, with the pirate sword-swing and accordion of “Castaways and Cutouts” and “Her Majesty,” sailing in at almost three minutes on the dot. Meanwhile “January Hymn” may cause pining for a new Shins effort, with that simple guitar line and reverb vocal intro, but Meloy cobbles together generic winter melancholia, simple rhymes of his former snowy Montana dwelling and memories frozen therein.
“All Arise” arrives wobbly and unnatural, Meloy doing his best impression of an aspiring honky-tonker fooling around with his buddies on a porch. A very expensive porch. That strain of songwriting is more successfully executed on loping closer “Dear Avery,” a Neil Young-en little sweetheart. It, like a small handful of other tunes on this ten-song set, feature the brevity and elementary feel which Meloy and Co. specifically set out to track.
Thus, “The King Is Dead” renders itself easy to like, and doesn’t try too hard to impress – which is more (or less) than what you can say of efforts like “Hazards of Love.” It comes off as more of an exercise in restraint, or of laying down what comes out, which may frustrate listeners expecting more of a challenge. But the relaxed pace and the focus on melody (rather than concept) may attract new fans to The Decemberists – this, six albums in.
As previously reported, the album can be streamed in its entirety at NPR.