‘King’ is a return to form
From the beginning, The Decemberists have had two things going for them; interesting melodies and lead singer Colin Meloy’s offbeat but ever-eloquent lyrics.
The band took a chance with their 2009 LP “The Hazards of Love,” a sprawling attempt at a rock opera. Meloy initially developed the concept for the stage and eventually scrapped it in favor of turning it into an album. As an exercise, it deserved respect. But overblown narratives strained to maintain a steady direction and the record simply collapsed under its own weight. While there were great moments, they weren’t enough and it ended up coming off as more of an exercise, an attempt at clearing the breach so the band could reload.
In the press biography for “Hazards,” Meloy addressed the toll it took in making the record. “Doing ‘The Hazards of Love’ took a lot out of me,” he said, “and I’m definitely curious what will come out now that I’ve got this out of my system.”
“The King is Dead” is the sound of the band hitting the reset button. They left the fairytales behind and in the process, they’ve made a great record.
Sonically, this is their most straightforward album. Guitars, harmonica and pedal steel guitar make an appearance on just about every song. I’ll stop short of calling it a country record, because it’s not, but the harmonies and instrumentation do give it a folk/country hybrid feel.
The first single off the album is “Down By The Water.” Meloy harmonizes beautifully with Gillian Welch, who is a guest on the track. For the sound, think Neil Young meets Tom Petty, with a little accordion thrown in for good measure. After all, what would a Decemberists record be without a little accordion?
Meloy has always been an impressive lyricist and he doesn‘t stumble here. This is, after all, a man who was able to pen the tale of a woman haunted by her dead baby and not only make it listenable but make it a great song. (That’s “Leslie Ann Levine,” off their album “Castaways and Cutouts,” for anyone wondering.) On “King” he doesn’t flex his lyrical muscles nearly as much but the effort isn’t missed and the album is actually better for it.
The album is evenly split between mid-tempo numbers like “This Is Why We Fight,” and “Rise To Me,” as well as beautiful ballads like “January Hymn” and “Dear Avery.”
“Dear Avery” is especially touching. Written as a primer from father to son, it communicates life’s tough journey but also asks him to remember he’s never alone.
“There are times life will rattle your bones and will bend your limbs / You’ll still find your way, the boy you’ve ever been / So you bend back and shake at the flame, at the flame you made / But don’t you shake alone, please Avery come home.”
“The King is Dead” might disappoint some fans. There is little of the drama, panache or gusto of earlier efforts. There is no running storyline, no damsels in distress. When you strip all that away, what you’re left with is a great record made by one of the best bands working today. Before you bemoan the loss of the drama, give it a listen. “Three chords and the truth” has always been enough before.