Review: The Decemberists, “The King Is Dead”

The King Is Dead
Image Courtesy of Pitchfork

It seems that all of the press surrounding the release of The Decemberists’ new album The King Is Dead is focused on the band “returning to their roots” and changing “from indie to folk-rock”. But do you know what? I think The Decemberists have always paid tribute to their folk roots and The King Is Dead is just a continuation of the musical journey for Colin Meloy and the band.

What has shifted for The Decemberists seems to be the scope of their music. Rather than being a heaving, rollicking concept album like much of The Decemberists’ back-catalogue The King Is Dead is a collection of stand alone songs, tied together with loose themes (in particular that of the changing seasons) but without a through narrative. Meloy feels a little more restrained in his vision and the result is a wonderful piece of American folk-rock that should make any fan of this kind of music smile.

From the opening track (the foot-stomping “Don’t Carry It All” with its driving, Arcade Fire-like rhythm) The King Is Dead hooks you in and keeps you smiling right through to the end. The Decemberists have managed to produce an album that straddles a number of genres and tones while still managing to give the listener a sense of completion – each song is a gem in its own right but together they just seem to reveal something more.

Meloy is more than happy to experiment with his instrumentation on The King Is Dead. With a band the size of The Decemberists (plus guest artists such as Gillian Welch and Peter Buck) it would be easy for the sound of the album to become too muddied and dense. But Meloy managers to avoid this by cleverly using the right instruments at the right time – from the acoustic guitar/vocal only sections of ballads “January Hymn” and “June Hymn” to the all out trad instrumental with dueling fiddle and accordion in “Rox in the Box”.

Readers of Timber and Steel are probably already fans of the first single from The King Is Dead, “Down By The Water”, featuring the wonderful Gillian Welch on backing vocals. Welch is a real talent and adds a lovely depth to her contribution on the album. Peter Buck (of REM) also appears on three tracks and while his contribution is a a little muted (he mainly plays mandolin) the influence of REM on the entire album is undeniable. And speaking of influences I dare anyone to listen to the second track (“Calamity Song”) and not think of the Mountain Goats.

Overall an absolutely amazing album from The Decemberists. The King Is Dead only needs a single listen for you to fall in love with its sumptuous melodies and rich instrumentation. The standout tracks are the duo of seasonal-based ballads “January Hymn” and “June Hymn” but the whole album is amazing from start to finish. This is guaranteed to be on high rotation on the Timber and Steel jukebox for a long while to come.


  1. Jason said,

    January 27, 2011 at 11:24

    The first time I listened to this album I decided I liked it, which is typically a bad thing and means it really doesn’t have longevity. I like it though, and it’s the first Decemberists album I’ve heard.

  2. December 15, 2011 at 09:51

    […] Decemberists – The King is Dead When I first sat down and listened to The King is Dead in January 2011 the comment I made was that it was going to be tough to top as an album of the year. Twelve months […]

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