The King Is Dead by the Decemberists (Capitol Records, 2011. 41 minutes)
The Decemberists are a folk band located in Portland, Oregon. Led by Colin Meloy and backed by Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, and John Moen, the band writes songs with a foundation in storytelling. Previous releases The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love, are classified as concept albums and display many progressive rock elements. The Decemberists originally signed to Olympia-based record label, Kill Rock Stars in 2003. In 2005, Capitol Records signed the band and distributed the band’s last three records.
In Green Pastures
Fresh off of two concept albums, the Decemberists return with a straight-up, Americana-influenced folk record. The King Is Dead neglects the idea of an album as a story and substitutes it with quality songwriting. Recorded in a barn located in the Oregon countryside, the lyrical and musical construction of this record is purely pastoral.
True to form, Colin Meloy’s lyrics are equally erudite and poetic. Despite an over-arching plotline, each song recites stories of rural life. At the beginning of “Rise to Me,” Meloy proclaims,
“Big mountain, wide river / There’s an ancient pull / These tree trunks, these stream beds / Leave our bellies full”
These lyrics point to a central theme in the King Is Dead: the relationship between humanity and nature.
Additionally, Meloy dives into seasonal themes with “January Hymn” and “June Hymn.” In the latter, he echoes the chorus,
“And once upon it / The yellow bonnets / Garland all the lawn / And you were waking / And day was breaking / A panoply of song / And summer comes to Springville Hill”
The references to agrarian life not only fuel the record’s content but also fit well rhythmically. Each song on the King Is Dead contains a beautiful flow between verse, chorus, and bridge.
With a Strum
From a musical standpoint, the Decemberists hold back compared to previous releases. Where the Crane Wife and the Hazards of Love emitted bombastic sections and highly dynamic tunes, the King Is Dead provides comparatively simple sounds for the ears.
Nevertheless, simplicity does not equal boring. The acoustic guitar work offers a robust foundation for the rest of the instrumentation. Although the chord structures in no way sound unique, its execution coupled with the rest of the backing instrumentation supplies fertile ground for the vocal melodies.
Take Some Chances!
However, the King Is Dead misses the mark in certain spots. First, the vocal melodies could use an extra push to become great. Even though nothing is glaringly wrong with the vocals, most melodies border on boring. If Meloy took a couple of vocal chances on the record, he could have propelled it from good to great.
Likewise, the track, “This Is Why We Fight,” misfires toward the end of the record. Although, the song itself is enjoyable, within the context of a record immersed in a pastoral narrative, the song feels entirely out of place when Meloy sings,
“Come the war / Come the avarice / Come the war / Come hell / Come attrition / Come the reek of bones / Come attrition / Come hell”
Having made my critique, I ultimately recommend the King Is Dead. While the record may never grace the top of a year-end list, it is the evidence of the band’s consistent output. If you are a prior fan of the Decemberists, a fan of folk music, or acoustic-based indie music, I recommend the King Is Dead.