After releasing The Hazards Of Love, the most complicated, ambitious, and polarizing album of the group’s career, The Decemberists return with The King Is Dead, a record that sounds like lost demos from their earliest days. (Or perhaps even earlier… at times, The King Is Dead sounds like it could’ve been recorded around 1986.) Pre-Decemberists, singer-songwriter Colin Meloy played in various alt-country and college-rock acts, and here, he gets back to those roots, steering away from multi-part prog exercises and baroque history lessons, and instead reverting to the simplicity of Richard Thompson, The Kinks, The Smiths, Bruce Springsteen, and R.E.M. From the achingly gorgeous ballads “Rise To Me” and “June Hymn” to the thumping rockers “Calamity Song” and “Down By The Water,” The Decemberists aren’t so much paring away the excess as they are behaving as though excess has never been an option.
The difference between The Decemberists of 2011 and Colin Meloy’s early-’90s bands Tarkio and Happy Cactus is that Meloy has become a much better songwriter. The King Is Dead spreads 10 songs across 40 minutes, and there isn’t a bum track in the bunch. Meloy sings about the burdens that unite us in the stirring, reassuring album-opener “Don’t Carry It All,” then flips to despair on the jaunty “Rox In The Box” and the rollicking “This Is Why We Fight,” describing the conflicts that divide us. Whichever tack he takes, there are no complicated metaphors or elaborate narratives here—just vivid emotions expressed through boozy, shout-along choruses and snappy rhythms. The Hazards Of Love was a much better record than many of its detractors claim, yet it’s hard to deny the power of The Decemberists’ renewed commitment to basic songcraft. Even the album-closer “Dear Avery” does so much with so little: just one acoustic guitar, one steel guitar, two voices, a drum, and an electric piano. But it’s all there.