Since releasing their debut album way back in 2002, The Decemberists have slowly become the discerning music fans alternative folk band of choice. While they’ve never really threatened to progress beyond their cult status, a Decemberists album can always be relied on to provide a solid dose of catchy, distinctive and above all melodic folk-rock. Now onto their sixth studio album, we’re pleased to report The Decemberists are as catchy, distinctive and melodic as ever – and may just have produced the first great album of 2011.
After the wide scope of their last two albums, The Hazards Of Love and The Crane Wife, vocalist Colin Meloy sought to dampen expectations of The King Is Dead recently, labelling it “an exercise in restraint”. While it isn’t a sprawling, ambitious concept album like their previous efforts, The King Is Dead certainly doesn’t need to be played down. It’s ‘restraint’ makes for a composed, cohesive and at times beautiful album full of gentle alt.country pop songs and emotional ballads.
Part of The King Is Dead’s melodic and emotional core is the presence of REM’s Peter Buck on guitar. He dominates the albums stand-out track, and lead single, ‘Down By The Water’. It’s similarities with REM’s ‘The One I Love’ are unmistakeable, but Colin Meloy’s distinctive vocals and the familiar Decemberist harmonicas and accordions make for a fresh and thoroughly enjoyable pop song. Buck also pops up on the albums opening two songs, ‘Don’t Carry It All’ and ‘Calamity Song’, setting the melodic folk-pop tone.
The King Is Dead, though, is by no means reliant on Buck’s influence. ‘Rox In The Box’ shows The Decemberists are more than capable of weaving their own melodic magic, with Jenny Conlee’s accordion transforming a beautiful folk number into a bar-room belter. ‘This Is Why We Fight’ also finds The Decemberists at their rocking best, with Meloy issuing a powerful battle-cry to stay vigilant in an ever-changing world over driving guitars and an intense rhythm.
As well as the more up-beat country toe-tappers, The King Is Dead also has its fair share of The Decemberists’ characteristically involving and emotional ballads. ‘Rise To Me’ recalls some of Neil Young’s most vulnerable and stripped-back moments and perfectly showcases Meloy’s distinctive and affecting vocals. The albums two companion ballads, ‘January Hymn’ and ‘June Hymn’, are perhaps the most memorable of the ‘slower’ songs, and the best example of The Decemberists new ‘restrained’ approach.
While some of the album bears a strong outside influence in Peter Buck, The King Is Dead is still unmistakeably a Decemberists album. It’s shift from narrative-led concepts to more stand-alone songs suggests the band are keen to move on creatively – much like that great singles band The Smiths. Maybe the similarities in album titles is not just a happy coincidence!