The Decemberists discard the costumes and dispense with the theatre, no longer both court jester and minstrel on their sixth album, for you see, The King Is Dead. An amusing title, if you care to acknowledge the obvious Smiths connotation, but such inferences end there. With its deep-rooted Americana feel, Meloy has come full circle to his alt. country pre-Decemberists outfit Tarkio and you can almost smell the corn fields and the trilling of birds.
“Here we come to a turning of the season”, Meloy imparts over harmonica and the rhythmic patter of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” on “Don’t Carry It All”. It’s signpost of what’s to come, and for some this record will be seen as a return to form, but it’s more a paring back of an artist’s musical ambitions. Having risen to the call of the rock opera with 2009’s The Hazards Of Love, where else can you go but where it all started, this time enlisting the help of R.E.M’s Peter Buck and Gillian Welch to add some characteristic flair and Byrds-ian jangle.
Meloy’s duet with Welch on “Rise To Me” provides one of the album’s high points, in a touching pedal-steel driven song about his autistic son, Henry. With Welch appearing on seven of the album’s ten songs, she plays a legit country-folk counterpoint to Meloy’s approximations. It’s not quite Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, but on the album’s gentler moments (“June Hymn” and the closer “Dear Avery”) you can’t help but be taken for the ride.
Peter Buck’s presence, or dominance, rather, on “Calamity Song” and “Down By The Water” each appear to follow select moments in R.E.M.s discography, with the brisk acoustic skip of “Calamity Song” sharing a similar intro as “South Central Rain”, Meloy throwing in an allusion to David Foster Wallace’s novel “Infinite Jest” within the lyrics. “Down By The Water” borrows the same jangled chords from “The One I Love” (you almost expect to hear Mike Mills call out “Fire” in the bridge) in what was almost certainly a wet dream moment for Meloy. And were you to ever wonder what a collaboration between R.E.M. and The Decemberists would sound like, well, it sounds pretty damn sweet.
The most attractive part about The King Is Dead is that it comes entirely without baggage. The instrumentation is deliberate with its simplified arrangements. Gone are the prog-rock flights of fancy and 12 minute multi-part suites. With a focus on acoustic guitar, pedal steel, harmonica and accordion, the album breathes unlike any other Decemberists album. The instruments ebb and flow naturally and Meloy has dispensed with the legionnaires and barrow boys in favour of something more personal. It’s an album that can be enjoyed without an arts degree or a keen interest in history. It’s pop, Americana style.