Colin Meloy and his Portlandia posse return from the studio (…er, barn) with The King is Dead, an earthy, organic alt-country gem. This stripped-down modern marvel finds The Decemberists with their heads out of the clouds and rock opera tendencies forgotten. It’s a journey from the shanty-town tribulations of yesteryear to the wildest of Wests. After two over-the-top, big label pummelings, this straight forward album is almost an uncomfortable one; like the helplessness you feel the moment you get exactly what you want.
With guest spots from Gillian Welch and REM’s Peter Beck, The King is Dead is an extremely calculated, multi-dimensional group of songs. Whether it’s Sweethearts of the Rodeo or Grievous Angel, The Decemberists conjure up a lifespan of Gram Parsons while adding in raw elements of an intimate open-mic night at some dimly lit western bar, where ordering cheap beer isn’t ironic.
Meloy’s pop sensibilities still shine, though this time humbly, as the band constructs an album genuine to its genre. The biggest this album ever sounds is when the over-mic’ed drums meets their match with wailing harmonica, honky tonk piano or fiddle. Incorporating all this, “Why We Fight” is the only real thing reminding us this wasn’t recorded wearing Nudie’s cowboy suits after some drug-fueled soul searching in Joshua Tree.
“Rise to Me” is a near-perfect ballad, utilizing backing piano and slide guitar the way they’re meant to be used. Like those of the Flying Burrito Brothers at their finer moments, the song marries a guitar’s cry and a broken soul’s pleas. A premature assessment may it be, but “Rise to Me” might stand its ground as one of this year’s strongest tracks.
The King is Dead is arguably The Decemberists’ best releases in nearly a decade, before their tracks came sputtering out of overzealous bookstore and coffee shop speakers like it was canned Muzak. It’s been an interesting ride, but these salt-water sailors have now hit land and settled down to a home on the range. Hopefully, they stay put.