The King Is Dead may sound like a change of direction for The Decemberists, beloved of folk/prog-rock geeks (such as me). Their last release, 2009’s The Hazards of Love, was a 17-song concept album full of mythical characters and widely varied instrumentation – and their previous release contained two three-part songs.
With its stripped-down sound and country-rock inflections (and clocking in at just under 40 minutes over its 10 songs), The King Is Dead certainly seems different, and that’s the tagline of the headlines I’ve seen so far. I don’t see it so much as a change of direction, however, than a continuation of a certain subset of their previous music. Colm Meloy and his band of misfits have carried the mood of the slower acoustic songs from Hazards into a complete album. Just listen to “The Hazards of Love 2” or “The Hazards of Love 4,” and then play “Rise to Me” from The King Is Dead and you’ll see what I mean.
Much as I love this band, I was a little leery about this album, just because the first song, “Down By the Water,” sounded a bit too much like 1980s-era R.E.M. (Listen to this song and then “The One I Love,” and you’ll know what I mean.) I love R.E.M. (and hadn't realized that Peter Buck was involved in the album), but I'm always worried when something sounds THAT much like something else. So I’m pleased to report that my first impressions are good: straightforward arrangements of well-crafted pop-folk-rock songs with tasteful use of pedal steel, violin and mandolin, plus Gillian Welch’s harmonies.
Stand out songs so far are the acoustic stomp of the opening track “Don’t Carry It All,” “This Is Why We Fight” with its dramatic lyrics and rapidly arpeggiated electric guitar, the slow "Rise to Me" with beautiful harmonies, and the ringing chime of "Calamity Song."
One area where “change of direction” may actually apply is in the lyrics. Rather than the normal cast of soldiers, fairies, sea captains, shape-shifters and other characters, Meloy’s lyrics seem a bit more personal, with a particular focus on nature and the change of seasons.
My conclusion: a good album likely to grow on me over time. Well worth purchasing.