The Decemberists have done it again. The King is Dead, their sixth album, takes the band’s trajectory in somewhat of a different direction than 2009’s The Hazards of Love. This time around, the band explores genres rather than a single story: wailing steel guitars, warm acoustic melodies, and harmonicas weave in and out of tracks, telling tales of the passage of time and the seasons. And it all feels perfectly natural and right.
“Don’t Carry It All” begins the album with simple and catchy earnestness. Along with “Calamity Song,” “January Hymn,” and “June Hymn,” it helps to capture an easygoing country-folk sound, reminiscent of big western skies and open roads—maybe Bob Dylan, too. The tones are warm and melodic, supported by Colin Meloy’s distinctive vocals and poetic lyricism as well as guest appearances from R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck.
On “Rise to Me” and “All Arise!” The Decemberists recontextualize the most typical conventions of country music. “Rise to Me” is a slow ballad, punctuated by deep piano chords, heartfelt harmonica, and the floating, sinking shiver of steel guitars. On “All Arise!” the band pick up speed for a feel-good jam with plunking banjos, fiddles, and jittery honky-tonk piano.
Much of The King is Dead plays with the customs of country rather than pushing its boundaries. “Rox in the Box,” however, shuffles and sways to the syncopated rhythms of an accordion and a fiddle, using minor tonalities to create a kind of gypsy Celtic sound. There’s also “Down by the Water,” a country-blues jam à la Neil Young with complex layers of instrumentation; bassy guitars and bluesy vocals churn above its steady percussion. It has the heavy-handed sound that characterized The Hazards of Love, powerful waves that build and carry you through the song.
The King is Dead is a masterful display of The Decemberists’ talent for taking a concept and running with it, whether it be creating an album-long mythological epic like The Hazards of Love, adapting the Japanese folk tale behind The Crane Wife, or exploring new genres. It will be exciting to see what kind of project the band sets itself to next.