The Decemberists

The King is Dead

Rating: 4.8/5.0

Label: Capitol Records

Every year around this time, an album or two pops up that prophetic music junkies insist will be the yardstick that the rest of the year’s music will be measured against. Too often (case in point: last year’s 1372 Overton Park), these albums end up losing their luster by the year’s midway point and have practically faded from memory by the time the inevitable year-end lists roll around. Don’t expect this to be the case with The King is Dead, the Decemberists’ acoustic-driven roots-rock masterpiece. The record might be the first truly brilliant album of 2011, and maybe even the finest of the Portland troupe’s already-heralded career – a mighty accomplishment considering Castaways and Cutouts, Picaresque and The Crane Wife had already catapulted the band to elite status.

Here we come to a turning of the season,” Colin Meloy sings on opener “Don’t Carry it All,” a fitting introduction to an album steeped in reflections of nature and rebirth. Much of the record plays out like a midsummer’s daydream, whether in the form of the “bold and brilliant sun” that illuminates the opening track or the poetic images of heaven-sent cardinals, blooming bulbs and clinging ivy that floats across the beautifully melodic “June Hymn.” Even the lone wintry misfit, “January Hymn,” with its hollowed background cooing, snow-glazed imagery and nostalgic lyrics (“Hail the winter days after dark/ Wandering the gray memorial park/ A fleeting beating of hearts“) emanates warmth.

For a band that made its bones in recent years indulging in every form of lyrical and musical excess, Meloy and company sound looser than ever here, as if by shedding the lavish arrangements of rock opera The Hazards of Love, they discovered a new-found levity. Even the more ominous tracks, such as the miner’s lament “Rox in the Box,” with its grave overtones (“While we’re living here/ Let’s get this little one thing clear/ There’s plenty of men to die/ Don’t jump your turn“) are as immediately accessible as the band’s recent efforts were scholarly. Perhaps for the first time, Meloy plays the part of heartfelt participant rather than storytelling Bard, and the results are remarkable: the weary vocals and weepy strings of “Rise to Me” radiate with earnestness, the spirited war cries of “Come help!” on “This is Why We Fight” complement the rollicking chorus and closer “Dear Avery” demonstrates a tenderness we haven’t seen from the band since “Of Angels and Angles.” Vital contributions are provided by Gillian Welch and Peter Buck, who lends his indelible guitar to three tracks (which explains the Reckoning-quality of the post-apocalyptic/rambunctious howler “Calamity Song”), all of which only strengthen an album that has all the markings of an early frontrunner for album of the year.

If the record has a weakness, it’s that at barely 40 minutes long, it’s likely to leave listeners salivating for more. After all, the sun isn’t the only bold and brilliant part of The King is Dead. The king may be dead. But the Decemberists have never sounded more alive.

by Marcus David

Key Tracks: January Hymn, June Hymn, Calamity Song

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