Review: The Decemberists – The King Is Dead

Artist: The Decemberists
Album: The King Is Dead
Genre: Folk/Indie
Label: Capitol

It’s always interesting to see what a band does to follow up a concept album. Will they go the Green Day/My Chemical Romance route and attempt to make an even more epic rock opera? Or, will they strip off all the overproduction and go back to their original sound? It’s a tough and risky choice to make.

On their sixth studio album, The King is Dead, indie folk rockers The Decemberists have chosen to return to their roots. The band spent six weeks in a barn in Oregon to record this LP, and the product is as genuine and organic as you’d expect a record made this way to be. The stripped-down, almost Americana tone of the album is a sharp contrast to the group’s previous concept records, 2009’s Hazards of Love and 2006’s The Crane Wife. This time around, the band’s instrumentation is far less experimental, and frontman Colin Meloy’s lyrics are straightforward, clear and concise.

The King Is Dead kicks off with pounding drums, acoustic guitars and Meloy’s rustic vocals on “Don’t Carry It All.” The track is surprisingly catchy, and the complimenting vocal harmonies supplied by multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee are soft, yet strong. Meloy has said that R.E.M. was a huge influence for The King is Dead, and the opening track, along with “Calamity Song” and first single “Down by the Water,” actually features R.E.M guitarist Peter Buck. Singer-songwriter Gillian Welch also makes a guest appearance on “Down by the Water,” taking over for Conlee on backing vocals.

From the slow country waltz of “Rise to Me” to the more upbeat “This Is Why We Fight,” The King Is Dead is just dynamic enough to keep your attention, without the band forcing any aspect of their sound. After just the first few minutes, it’s clear that the songwriting on The King Is Dead is a far leap from the band’s previous, more progressive material. In fact, the entire album never strays too far from the simplistic formula of the opening track, and it works to the group’s advantage.

Bottom line: The Decemberists don’t need all the bells and whistles of their past records to still captivate their listeners. Ultimately, The King Is Dead will make you feel as though you’re hearing a beautifully-recorded live performance. With some strings, an accordion, a harmonica and acoustic guitars, they’ve created a cohesive piece of art that flows smoothly and seamlessly.

Score: 9/10
Review written by: Rebecca Frank

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the founder of Under The Gun Review. He loves writing about music and movies almost as much as he loves his two fat cats. He's also the co-founder of Antique Records and the Marketing Coordinator for Haulix. You should probably follow him on Twitter.

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  • Ttiot8

    I’ve found that their new album The King Is Dead sounds overproduced and, while I’ve been a long time Decemberists fan, I can’t get into it. I remember being very excited listening to live acoustic versions of Dear Avery, This Is Why We Fight, Calamity Song, and Rox in the Box but the final album result falls short. As a new twist in their career it’s not a bad one, but what they produced shouldn’t be likened to their older albums.

  • Young Anna Lee

    Actually that is not Jenny Conlee singing but it is Gillian Welch doing all female harmonies. Rise To Me is not a waltz either but that’s not important. Great review!