The Decemberists' 2009 release, The Hazards of Love, was an overblown, 17-track rock opera complete with multiple characters, fairy queens, shape-shifters, metal riffs and plenty of other ridiculous things. It was, in a word, a mess. Thankfully, the band has simplified its sound a bit and returned to its folk-rock roots with The King is Dead.
If there's one influence that shines through on the album, it's R.E.M. The lead single, "Down by the Water," sounds like a classic R.E.M. track. It's not a mere coincidence though — Peter Buck plays 12-string guitar on the track. Buck isn't the only guest star on the album, either. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings also make appearances.
While the more upbeat songs recall R.E.M., they are by no means cheap imitations. Front-man Colin Meloy has crafted plenty of memorable melodies, and the accordion in the background still gives the music a unique flair. However, some of the best moments on the album come when the band slows it down just a little bit. "Rise to Me" is perhaps the most beautiful song on the record, sounding like Harvest-era Neil Young with harmonica, piano, steel guitar and gorgeous backing vocals from Gillian Welch.
Some of the songs might lack the complex wordplay that Meloy is known for, but since everything is executed so well, it's hard to be too disappointed. After The Hazards of Love, it seems only natural for the band to take a more straightforward approach this time around.
On The King is Dead, the music is pure Americana. Shades of R.E.M., Neil Young, The Band and many others can all be heard. With that combination of influences, the album understandably sounds as if it could have been recorded many years ago. The beauty in it, however, is that it still feels like The Decemberists are doing something new and exciting.