Decemberist fans are no strangers to strange instrument combinations: accordions, trumpets, mandolins, the hurdy gurdy, instruments that don’t grace your typical pop song or even indie song. However, what Decemberists fans will not be used to when listening to their sixth full length album, “The King is Dead,” the first full length studio album since 2009’s “The Hazards of Love”, is the band sounding so, well, American.
“The King is Dead” pays homage to all facets of American music including bluegrass, folk, blues, a little bit of country and a little bit of rock n’ roll. Tracks names, such as “Calamity Song” and “Down by the Water,” include fiddles and washboards, and a whole lot of soul. Thankfully, The Decemberists deliver.
These influence are apparent on “Calamity Song,” “June Hymn,” the fancy fiddlework on “All Arise!,” and the almost-eerie banjo solo coupled with muted soulful vocals at the end of “This is Why We Fight.” The catchiest of the tracks, and the most likely to hear radio time, is “Down by the Water,” a modern take on traditional spirituals complete with references to “the old main drag.”
The Portland rockers have stepped back from the alternative British sounds that influenced the hugely popular 2006 release “The Crane Wife” and towards the down-home guitar pickings of the USA, although “The King is Dead” may pay tribute to the iconic The Smiths album, “The Queen is Dead”.
This shift in focus does not necessarily change the band’s sound beyond recognition; Colin Meloy’s signature vocals and literary lyric style are intact and as strong as ever.
In fact, when compared to “The Hazards of Love,” the latest album seems natural, easy and freeing, many tracks taking on a singer songwriter vibe reminiscent of Neil Young or Bob Dylan. Meloy has said that R.E.M. is also a primary influence on the album, and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck joins the band on three tracks.
Part of this is due to the fact that many of the tracks are takeaway songs. Not weighed down by a heavy and dramatic concept like “Hazards” or “The Crane Wife,” “The King is Dead” is composed of songs that showcase Meloy’s ability to write catchy stories, and melodies, that only take a few minutes to tell. This is evidenced in “January Hymn,” a stripped down ballad about love lost and snowfall: “On a winter’s Sunday I go / to clear away the snow / and green the grown below.”
The album is just as insightful and intricately assembled as the band’s earlier discography, but free from the specificity of a concept album, Meloy has given the listener more license for creativity.
Meghan Dixon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.