The Decemberists, ‘The King Is Dead’ (Capitol)
The best thing about the new Decemberists record is what it lacks: a concept. On 2009’s The Hazards of Love, these Portland-based nerd’s nerds tragically overdosed on rock-operatic ambition, piling allegorical characters and complicated story lines so high that they ended up building a sort of fortress for themselves. Inside those walls, frustratingly out of reach for anyone not dazzled by the album’s Byzantine narrative, lay frontman Colin Meloy’s melodic gift and his bandmates’ crackerjack playing. Outside? A bunch of overworked crap about forests and fairies.
No Decemberists fan could say he didn’t see it coming, of course. Meloy’s been cuckoo for rococo puffs since the band’s first EP, on which he spun an apocryphal little yarn titled “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist.” (Dude grew up in Montana.) And The Crane Wife, the Decemberists’ 2006 major-label debut, included an elaborate retelling of a Japanese folk tale. Still, Hazards was toomuch even by Meloy’s standards — something of a jump-the-shark moment for a guy who probably refers to sharks as bruins of the brine.
Ten crisp roots-rock tunes in a mere 40 minutes, The King Is Dead finds the Decemberists in serious course-correction mode — which is a relief, if also kind of sad. Hazards sorta sucked, it’s true, but you had to admire the band’s chutzpah; here they seem a little chastened, and the result is an relatively unweighty effort from these career overachievers. That may in fact have been what they were after: “Let the yoke fall from our shoulders,” Meloy sings in opener “Don’t Carry It All,” before urging us to “raise a glass to turnings of the season.” Welcome to Fun-uary, everybody!
Though the album’s title makes you think of the Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead — Meloy is an avowed fan, and even released a solo EP of Morrissey covers in 2005 — King pays more obvious tribute to R.E.M., whose Peter Buck contributes mandolin and 12-string guitar to a handful of tracks. “Calamity Song,” in particular, could be an outtake from Murmur or Reckoning, with a lyric that channels the ironic nihilism of “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Buck shows up again in the surprisingly muscular “Down by the Water,” as does Gillian Welch on harmony vocals, her astringent holler smartly complementing Meloy’s bleat.
Welch’s presence isn’t the only touch of Americana; “All Arise!” is a rowdy honky-tonk hoedown, while “Rox in the Box” shares some string-band DNA with Black Prairie, an avant-bluegrass Decemberists side project led by guitarist Chris Funk and bassist Nate Query. As rustic as some of this music is, though, Meloy still can’t resist flexing his rarefied vocabulary, throwing in a “plinth” here anda “trillium” there.
But he also reveals a knowing sense of humor about it all. After extravagantly describing a turn-of-the-century financieras the “queen of supply-side bonhomiebone-drab” in “Calamity Song,” he stage-whispers slyly, “Know what I mean?” And the singer appears most deeply engaged with The King Is Dead‘s more direct, plainspoken moments; on “Rise to Me,” he simply addresses his real-life son Henry by name, and “January Hymn” begins with this lovely image: “On a winter’s Sunday I go / To clear away the snow / And green the ground below.” No allegory, no fairies, no fortress. Nice, right?