The King is Dead is a departure into breezy folk rock for the Decemberists. Based in Portland, Oregon, the band is known for long-winded, concept albums. Their 2009 The Hazards of Love was a rambling rock-opera thick with allegory and thorny plot lines. This is a nerd's nerd band, an English major or drama queen's band. Lead singer Colin Meloy--who writes all the lyrics and melodies, bringing the songs to the rest of the band nearly finished--is a lover of literature and language; historical allusions abound in his songs. On the band's 2006 album The Crane Wife, Meloy sings in “Sons and Daughters” about war and hearing the “bombs fade away”: “Take up your arms/ Sons and daughters/ We will arise from the bunkers/ By land, by sea, by dirigible.” But it is Meloy's clear, high-spirited delivery of the end-line notes that keeps the song hopeful and catchy. That and the joy of someone inserting a word like “dirigible” so artfully—singably—into a song.
But with The King is Dead the Decemberists break away from concept, go folk-rock-country and give plentiful nods to their influences—R.E.M., The Smiths, Neil Young, the Band, and Emmylou Harris, to name a few. R.E.M.'s Peter Buck plays on three tracks, and Gillian Welch sings on seven. “Don't Carry It All,” the ablum's opener, booms in with the stellar band's funky and classical mix: drums, bass, accordion, violin, mandolin, bouzouki, harmonica, pedal steel, and tambourine. Meloy entreats us to “raise a glass to the turnings of the season,” while revealing hints of his Irish heritage as his voice wavers and trills ever so slightly around words such as “trillium” and lines such as “upon a plinth that towers t'wards the trees.” “Calamity Song,” with Peter Buck on his 12-string, could be mistaken for early, jangly R.E.M. at its best, and Meloy teases with enigmatic, historical Michael Stipe-like lyrics: “Hetty Green/ Queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab/ (Know what I mean?).” The song is a clear tribute to R.E.M.'s hit “It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” and its dream-like lyrics and powerful beat are dead-on.
Meloy's voice is round and rich; his enunciation, word play and word choice are charming on this album. The song themes can be playful, as in “Calamity Song,” and “All Arise” but also soft and comforting, as in “January Hymn” and “June Hymn.” The two latter songs are beautifully simple, pastoral odes that quietly mark and honor how the earth changes month to month, with both songs having a subtle thread of entreaty to a loved or lost person. In “All Arise,” a rousing, spin-your-partner kind of song, Meloy croons about a thief: “So the dollar shop shoppers/ Broke the lock and they knocked you down/ Better call the coppers/ If you need someone to push you around.” There are culverts, there are shotguns. The barroom piano and hoedown fiddle are the ideal accompaniment to the song's loose mood.
“The King is Dead” is a celebration of life, complete with partying, funerals and those quiet moments pondering the jasmine in the garden. The musicianship is first-rate. The sound buoys you through every swell, and Meloy's voice and words are enthralling. It is worth listening to over and over again.