Let’s face it: The Hazards of Love (2009) was not a very good record. Ambitious, yes. Well-orchestrated, sure. Especially pleasing to a certain older, All Songs Considered set, definitely. The album, however, proved sorely lacking in one of the key ingredients of the Decemberists’ winning formula. This element, mysterious and surprisingly hard to come by in much of the music made by the band’s contemporaries, started to wane even before Hazards, on The Crane Wife (2006), the album that ushered in an entirely new level of recognition and success for the group. The element, the particular flavor that brought legions of unusually dedicated fans to the Decemberists’ first few years, from 5 Songs (2001) all the way to Picaresque (2005)?
No, not even whimsy (there’s a buzzword for the band if there’s ever been one) or charm or energy, but fun. You could feel it in Colin Meloy’s tongue-in-cheek narratives, you could see it in the band’s signature twee artwork (courtesy of Meloy’s wife, Carson Ellis), and you could certainly catch it at their tremendous live performances. But when Meloy got a taste of newfound success, it seemed to spur him on toward what was ostensibly higher ground: the sweeping mini-suites of The Crane Wife were often thrilling, but the murk of Hazards of Love and its full-length, single song cycle rock opera was just too much to take, too leaden with ambition and simply too heavy to lift itself to the rafters like the band’s best material. Fortunately enough, The King Is Dead suggests that Meloy and co. are starting to have fun again, or at least deciding to let us do that.
Don’t be mistaken, this is still a self-serious record, when compared to the band’s early back catalog. Meloy’s not painting Technicolor portraits of vengeful sailors or woefully lonely French soldiers. He’s still very much the same writer that composed Crane and Hazards, one who seems no longer satisfied with mugging SAT words for a laugh or creating colorful character sketches that come and go within three minutes. However, nor is he any longer trying to push the limits of narrative in songwriting past their natural tipping point, having seemingly purged himself of that desire over the last several years. Rather, here Meloy has taken on more traditional version of the man-with-acoustic-guitar mantle. That sort of figure wouldn’t likely make for much of a romantic character to populate the younger Meloy’s songs, but it’s interesting — and it turns out, quite pleasant — to see him try something entirely different: understatement.
Musically, the album leans heavily on Meloy’s acoustic guitar, alternately strummed and finger-picked, and almost always right at the front of the mix. Chris Funk doesn’t trot out his apparently encyclopedic knowledge of instruments odd (think hurdy-gurdy) and familiar (pedal steel, for example) as he did on the Decemberists’ past compositions, all of which made him the band’s not-quite-secret weapon. Ironically, by scaling things back a bit, Meloy has finally become by far the star of the show. Peter Buck of R.E.M. plays guitar on several tracks, as has been much touted in the band’s promotional material for the album, but his contributions blend more or less seamlessly into those of the rest of the group. You can hear the jangling influence of Buck’s band throughout The King Is Dead, but the whole of the album owes a greater debt to traditional country-western music than to Athens, GA. Harmonica, fiddle, ramshackle brushed snares—we get it all, and it all fits the Decemberists like a worn leather glove. Prog rock experimentation, you are not missed here.
“Don’t Carry It All”, perhaps the record’s finest song, kicks things off in high gear. The track has the easy spirit of uplift that was always the band’s most solid appeal, with Meloy imploying, “Let the yoke fall from our shoulders, / don’t carry it all, don’t carry it all,” over John Moen’s steady beat and his own major chord lead and confident vocals. The harmonica that covers the bridge punches up the mix nicely, and gives the song an appealingly sepia-toned, nostalgic feel. Meloy keeps his imagery simple and direct, and doesn’t suffer for it. He finds time to mention “summer’s freckled knees” and a “buried wreath of trillium and ivy” laid upon a dead boy’s chest, but never loses himself or the song’s spirit in his wordplay.
There are plenty of other highlights. “Calamity Song”, with it’s simple “ah-oo” chorus and nimble guitar picking, recalls the band at its best, as do the morbid lyrics underlying the song’s disarmingly perky tone (“Had a dream, / you and me and the war of the end times, / and I believe / California succumbed to the fault line; / we heaved relief / as scores of innocents died”). “Rise to Me” and “June Hymn” are lovely ballads in the style of “Grace Cathedral Hill”. Lead single “Down By the Water” employs the tricks of “Don’t Carry It All” to similar effect in a raucous success. There are some dips in quality, yes. “This Is Why We Fight” has a Smiths-tinged tenseness and melancholy, but also shockingly weak lyrics for a writer like Meloy, while “Dear Avery” never quite seems to get going. Still, The King Is Dead shows a strong turnaround for the Decemberists, and it’s a relief. It’s good to have Meloy and his band settling back to Earth and writing songs for the sake of the songs themselves — having stopped so plainly swinging for the fences, they’ve pulled off a record more impressive for its consistency and quiet confidence than anything they’ve done in years.