2009's expansive "theme" album The Hazards of Love, with its pseudo-hard rock and repeated melodies, was a little too "different" for some listeners. Some people seemed to much prefer the band's woodsy folk rock employed on albums like The Crane Wife and Picaresque, a sound that (thankfully to them, perhaps) is revisited on The King is Dead.
The album was mostly created in a barn in Portland, and it really makes sense when you consider how much the songs sound like they were conceived in a barn, on a farm, or in some other such outdoorsy venue.
Album opener Don't Carry It All starts out the album with full-on Tom Petty harmonica flare and vocalist/guitarist Colin Meloy showing off his customarily unique singing style. The song's steady rhythm and slow burn is a pretty effective, laid-back intro to the record.
The woodsy stomp continues with Calamity Song, and really doesn't let up for the entirety of the album. Meloy sings about California succumbing to the fault lines and Native American tribes and frontier USA stuff like that, usually accompanied by backup singer Jenny Conlee, who adds even more melody to the tunes.
Listening to this record, it really feels like more of a "stripped down" affair than one could presume Hazards of Love was, as these songs have a much more simplistic sound, usually with a spontaneous, "this song came out of a jam session" feeling to them. Rise to Me uses some slick slide guitar, ramping up the "outdoor campfire jam" feel, and it works very well.
Rox in the Box is probably the album's standout track, with a haunting melody aided by some vibrant fiddle work in the middle that quickly turns into an all-out hootenanny, if I'm using the word correctly. It's energetic, catchy, and a lot of fun, and I bet it sounds even more like a campfire bash in concert.
January Hymn and June Hymn, ostensibly some sort of connected theme, are low key acoustic affairs that find Meloy testing out his vocal range, and both songs end up being pretty bare bones, stripped-down folk ballads.
Down By the Water, the first song released from this record, again uses harmonicas as its driving force, managing at times to sound like REM covering Neil Young (Meloy has actually stated that the album is "heavily influenced by REM", so this comparison is appropriate). In addition, this song actually features REM guitarist Peter Buck, so we can pretty much close the book on the "who influenced this song?" question.
This is Why We Fight is one of the more guitar-heavy songs on the album, an uptempo (compared to some of the other folky jams) number with waterfalls of harmonica and acoustic and electric guitars carrying Meloy's voice throughout. It's a long song, clocking in at more than 5 minutes, but it provides a nice moment of high energy (at least in Decemberists' standards) on the album.
In all, The King is Dead is a supremely satisfying Decemberists record. While Hazards of Love was maybe "too much", the new collection finds the band really stripping things down and re-capturing some of the energy and exuberance that influenced their earlier albums.
The album is a great collection of songs inspired by the likes of classic rock icons like Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, REM, and Neil Young, and such influences shine through easily. It's a great homage from the Decemberists to the bands they adore, and it's well worth your time (and money).