The Decemberists: The King Is Dead

Posted April 12, 2011 by J Matthew Cobb in Reviews 1.0

Band’s sixth offering solicits the help of R.E.M’s Peter Buck and a return to roots

Returning to one’s roots might seem unnecessary for a relatively young band that has already achieved critical praise for their hybrid of folk music and indie rock, but frontman Colin Meloy and his Oregon-based band The Decemberists have done just that with their sixth studio release, The King Is Dead. While this might seem a strange turn for a narrative-driven band – whose last two albums were a rock opera and one centered on a pair of Japanese folk tales – perhaps the decision to turn towards traditional folk music, was a logical move after all.  Thus, gone are the elaborate orchestrations and dramatic lyrics of 2009’s The Hazards of Love, replaced here by simple folk melodies and instrumentation crafting tales of everyday rural life.

In addition to the obvious folk influences on The King Is Dead, Meloy has admitted a particularly strong compositional nod to the work of R.E.M., so much so that the legendary band’s own Peter Buck laid down guitar and mandolin parts for three of the album’s more-notable tracks. In fact, so strong is Meloy’s fondness for R.E.M.’s work that it can even be heard in songs not featuring Buck’s recognizable strumming, most-prominently the rousing call-to-arms “This Is Why We Fight.”  While the album’s first single “Down by the Water” bears a striking resemblance to R.E.M.’s “The One I Love,” the remaining two Buck feature tracks are noticeably stronger. The cheery pastoral number “Don’t Carry It All” hearkens back to a time when the community had to pull together in brotherly goodwill to survive.  The oddly-sunny “Calamity Song” unites present-day paranoia with the album’s otherwise rural themes for an interesting near-anachronistic lyrical brew.

Another collaboration of note is that with famed folk singer Gillian Welch, whose fitting timbre lends authenticity, effectively balancing Meloy’s often near-inappropriate-for-the-genre tone. As it stands, the frontman seems quite aware of this fact, offering some of the softest tones of his career in the lullaby-like “January Hymn” and its peppier companion “June Hymn.” Also in this vein, and easily The King Is Dead’s brightest gem, is its pacifying closing number “Dear Avery,” a pleading reminder from loving father to prodigal son that home still offers something truly worth the effort of returning. Perhaps it’s the song’s perfect blend of the old Decemberists’ sound with their current exploration of folk, or maybe it’s the pensive (and less frequent for this release) minor tones and mournful pedal-steel guitar solos, but either way, “Dear Avery” is the best conclusion to this rootsy jaunt the band has offered. Thus, while fans of the oft-quirky quintet might be disheartened by this fairly-drastic stylistic excursion with tracks that occasionally start to run together out of sameness, these fans might also develop a new appreciation for the band’s previous work, having been offered a closer look at the river of inspiration that’s been nurturing The Decemberists’ endearing style all-along.



  • Release Date: 14 January 2011
  • Label: Capitol
  • Producer: Tucker Martine
  • Spin This: “Dear Avery,” “Don’t Carry It All,” “Calamity Song”

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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