The King Is Dead (Capitol)
The Portland-based Decemberists, led by long-winded wordsmith/vocalist/guitarist Colin Meloy, have offered their fair share of narrative concepts and instrumental density over the course of a nearly decade-long career, peaking with 2009's The Hazards of Love. That album took their lyrical and musical bombast to new levels of intensity, focusing on one album-long rock opera (a love story between a woman and a shape-shifting forest creature) while also upping their prog-rock ambitions, layering instrumental solos, textures, and interludes into an ambitious, love-it-or-hate-it package.
This time out, the concept was to forget about concepts. For The King Is Dead, Meloy and company retreated into the wooded expanses of an 80-acre farm and recorded a series of country-rock-influenced tracks, a conscious pull-back from the excesses that have come to define their recent work. As a result, the Decemberists have crafted an album that will appeal to a wider audience, but one that also sacrifices their dynamic sense of full-band propulsion.
Much noise has been made about the album's R.E.M. influence ("Down by the Water" does essentially reek of "The One I Love," and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck guests on three tracks), but a more telling, and rewarding, influence comes in the form of Paul Simon—"January Hymn," with its gorgeous vocal melody and sparse acoustic guitar, is the album's indisputable heartbeat and highlight. There's an odd polarity to Meloy's lyrics this time out. As if in reaction to the band's newfound twang, the words are split between his quintessential flowery fluff ("a wreath of trillium and ivy") and rustic, unfussy, good ol' boy imagery ("Rolling in the water/Rolling down the old main drag").
The King Is Dead is pretty, no doubt about it, and after the overblown mania of The Hazards of Love, cutting back seems like the only logical move. But it's difficult not to long for the Decemberists' more outlandish side. Even if you hated them before, you had to respect their singularity. Despite its simple, strumming beauty, The King Is Dead lacks the band's trademark spark.