The best way to summarize the Decemberists’ new album, The King Is Dead, is to say that it is not 2009′s The Hazards of Love. Where that album was a concept rock-opera of epic proportions, The King Is Dead is more akin to the band’s earlier works, specifically its debut album, Castaways And Cutouts. The band plays it safe here, but after going way off to left field on its last release, this isn’t a bad thing. Buoyed by the excellent mid-album single “Down By The Water”, The King Is Dead focuses on what made the Decemberists famous in the first place: Colin Meloy’s lyrical oddities and the group’s pastoral sound. The aforementioned “Down By The Water” shines as the album’s stand-out track, full of life with contemplative lyrics that take advantage of Meloy’s unique, sorrowful voice. It also features a vocal duet with Gillian Welch that recalls The Crane Wife‘s “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then).”
While The King Is Dead could be seen as disappointing because of its lack of innovation, such an assumption would be unfair. It’s more of a return to form for a band that wildly left its comfort zone on its album. That’s not to say that there aren’t new tweaks to the old formula: “All Arise!” sees the band venture into bonafide country and come out with a hell of a ditty, while “This Is Why We Fight” melds the lessons learned from The Hazards of Love regarding heavy guitars with some good ol’ fashioned harmonicas, creating the track most qualified to represent the new album’s sound. If you were a fan of the Decemberists before they went all prog-metal, you will find satisfaction in The King is Dead. Bonus: there isn’t a single story of queens and rakes and undead children anywhere to be found on this album.