The Decemberists' sixth studio release, The King Is Dead, moved 93,567 units in its debut week to give the little band from Portland, Ore., its first number #1 record.
The Decemberists have personally always been a pretty mediocre band on my radar. I didn't dislike them, but they never quite moved me. I've always lumped them in that “nice background music that can be easily ignored” category. However, I honestly feel like this album I’ll return to time and time again. With The King Is Dead, Colin Meloy and company delivers a nice spread that’s equal-parts folk, rock, country and Americana, with a dash of sweet little twang. What this album doesn't have is a concept, which is 100% fine.
Meloy has said in interviews leading up to this release that they intentionally took a turn away from concept rock opera-ness of 2009's The Hazards of Love. It’s true that a non-concept album might be the easier route, but this album feels very authentic in a way I've never heard the Decemberists before. The end result is a completely eclectic but also accessible album that sounds effortless. Some diehard fans might miss the lack of concept/storytelling. But just because there isn't a singular storyline throughout The King Is Dead doesn't mean its creditability and musicianship is diluted.
The King is Dead is an homage to the Smiths' album The Queen Is Dead, but the title is where the reference stops. The overall sound is much more relevant to R.E.M. than Morrissey (although Meloy’s 2005 EP of Morrissey covers is pretty legit). The R.E.M.-ness makes sense due to Peter Buck (of R.E.M.) appearing on several tracks contributing mandolin and 12-string guitar.
The opening track “Don’t Carry It All” is surely in the running for best opening track for 2011. It’s twangy and folky, filled with harmonica and vocal harmonies. It’s perfect for either a solo Sunday afternoon drive or a sold-out show with the entire crowd singing along.
The King Is Dead has great texture. “All Arise!” is a little honky-tonk coming right after “Down by the Water”, which is one of the moodiest songs on the album next to “This Is Why We Fight”. But despite all the non-concept, cornucopia of sound, The King Is Dead flows straight through all 10 tracks.
A personal standout on the album is “June Hymn”. It might be my own personal yearning for a warm summer day with snow currently everywhere. But it is also one of the simplest songs on the album, which really puts those vocal harmonies shown throughout the album in the spotlight. There is also a really delightful harmonica solo that isn't mind-blowing in any way—just beautiful.
As an added fun fact, even though I assume it’s partially due to Amazon.com selling the album for $3.99 (and now only $7.99), two out of every three copies of The King Is Dead sold in the first week were sold digitally. As Meloy said himself in the opening track, “Here we come to a turning of the season.” Indeed.