When I fired up this new Decemberists album for the first time I was blown away by how much it sounded like Tom Petty. That’s right, Tom Petty. Specifically, Tom Petty’s hit “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” During the course of those first strange 15 seconds of “Don’t Carry It All,” the opening track of The Decemberists’ new album, The King is Dead, I found myself thinking… you don’t know how it feels… to hear a band I really enjoy doing Tom Petty covers. You don’t know how it feels… to not recognize the Decemberists… and it went on and on. Then, Colin Meloy’s vocals hit around 16 seconds in and all became right with the world. After a few deep breaths, I felt better and it was clear this was the Decemberists, a band with a decidedly new direction.
The King is Dead is a definite step away from the epic, orchestral and grandiose sounds of their past albums. You may remember 2009’s The Hazards of Love. It was a monumental song cycle that was, quite frankly, a lot to absorb. The Decemberists are often referred to as a literary rock band, known for scholarly lyrics and complex symbolism. The Hazards of Love is the ultimate expression of that version of the band. The King is Dead goes for the opposite in many ways. This is a comparatively stripped down, acoustic-centered album. It is also solidly in the alt-country/Americana genre. Really, the only things anchoring The King is Dead to the band’s previous efforts are Meloy’s vocals and finely crafted lyrics.
This is a much more intimate record than The Hazards of Love. That being said, the band still manages to create a big sound. Meloy mentions that some of the inspiration for this album came from Neil Young’s Harvest. In homage to Harvest, the band recorded this album in a barn; just like Neil did so many years back. “Don’t Carry It All” and “Rise to Me” really stand out as songs that have that Harvest-era sound to them. They don’t sound like Neil Young songs, but I think Neil Young circa 1971 would really get into this stuff.
Helping to round out the country sound is the absolutely stunning contributions of Gillian Welch. Over the last decade Welch has become the modern day equivalent of Emmylou Harris. Her vocals grace many albums in the alt-country realm and never fail to elevate them to a higher level. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck also adds some guitar and mandolin to three tracks, contributing nicely to the richness of these songs. The contributions of these two really come together on “Down By the Water.” When I listen to this track in particular I wonder how much of the country sound would come through on this album without Buck and specifically Welch. Without them would this just be a stripped down Decemberists record?
While these songs do have a different sound than the Decemberists you know and love, they’re really not unrecognizably different. Looking back through the band’s catalog, the song that most resembles this new batch of songs is “The Bachelor and the Bride.” There are plenty of odd twists in the music as well. The breadth of instrumentation found on The King is Dead is both fresh and familiar. The band often employs a variety of instruments, but there are a lot of new ones here. In short, there’s a lot a new nuances to love. Ultimately, what makes The King is Dead most endearing is how relaxed and comfortable the bad sounds in their new skin; a lot like Neil Young sounded on Harvest.
When I hear a band take their sound in a new direction, as the Decemberists most certainly have, I always wonder, is this new sound permanent? Is this what the Decemberists were meant to be, what they’ve been working toward the whole time? My feeling is no. This feels like a really nice vacation from their former selves. This is a band taking time to enjoy being a band; they’ll think about the next big move tomorrow, but right now they’re in the barn having a great time. Most established bands need to follow turns in the road to remain relevant. Sometimes they follow a new road, sometimes it’s just a happy detour (we could get back to Neil Young and talk about Trans if you really want to talk about detours). Whatever the future holds for the Decemberists, The King is Dead is a well crafted record that is well worth your time. And what other band do you know who will use the word panoply in their songs?