If news of a new Decemberists album had you clearing an entire day in your schedule just to listen to and decipher the thing, relax. The band's sixth outing, "The King Is Dead," is a refreshingly succinct and basic roots album that will fit snugly into your Tuesday and revive your spirit like a surprise chat with an old friend.
After several albums of what were already ambitious, folk-based pop songs, the Decemberists dropped "The Hazards of Love" on us in 2009. A full-blown concept album, it was a bold undertaking and an overall creative success. "Hazards," though, had plenty of them and required time to digest. "The King Is Dead" goes down nice and easy.
Decemberists leader and songwriter Colin Meloy started his musical career in a Helena, Mont., band called Happy Cactus. He was 10 when the Replacements released "Let It Be," though he later wrote a book about that album for the 33-1/3 series. As he hit his teens, R.E.M. was hitting its stride. These are the roots he has returned to for "The King Is Dead," even going so far as to recruit R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck to play guitar on three songs. (His combustive "Murmur"-ings on "Calamity Song" are uncanny, and his chorus riff underneath "Down by the Water" sounds exactly like R.E.M.'s "Texarkana.") "I'd be better off on the radio if I had a time machine and could go to Athens, Ga., in 1986 to write music," Meloy recently told Billboard. That's pretty much what he's done on (an allusion to that year's Smiths album?) "The King Is Dead."
His penchant for the strange, dark tales in British folk music finally has flowed back into the similarly tortuous streams of Americana. "The King Is Dead" springs from those banks with twang and timelessness intact. Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, even earthy fellow Portland singer Laura Veirs appear to boost the roots quotient. The result is a much more easygoing listening experience. While Meloy occasionally has tried to ape Shakespeare in crafting his lyrical narratives, he unwinds considerably here, offering two- and three-word lines throughout "This Is Why We Fight"; that fighting spirit, endemic of the band's namesakes, remains present in songs like "Rox in the Box," about early 20th-century labor uprisings in Montana, and the rally cry of "All Arise!" but it's also balanced by reminders like "Don't Carry It All" ("Let the yoke fall from our shoulders"). Chicagoans will appreciate the sentiment of "January Man" ("On a winter's Sunday I go / to clear away the snow") as much as its uncomplicated instrumentation, echoed later in the strumming guitars and seasonal hope of "June Hymn." (The latter features more great Meloy poetry: "The thrushes bleating battle with the wrens / disrupts my reverie again.") Both songs also may be the most intimate, first-person ruminations we've heard from Meloy. It's nice to be reminded that he's much more Mike Scott (Waterboys) than he is Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull).