To be a fan of the Decemberists, you have to be prepared to face an inevitable question: "Why?" There's something about the group that really pisses off a lot of people, from the music they play, to the words they use, to the way they look. Maybe folks are still confusing frontman Colin Meloy with Ben Gibbard, maybe everyone just needs a band to hate until Coldplay's next album, or maybe they've just come to stand for everything that's supposedly so boring about indie rock. After the 2009 release of The Hazards of Love, answering the question became much more difficult. It was a concept album with mostly crappy execution, all prog and no pulse. Luckily, the band's new album, The King is Dead, released on Capitol Records, is a return to what made the band so easy to defend in the first place—largely thanks to R.E.M. Meloy has never been shy about his influences. He's recorded EPs dedicated to Morrissey, Sam Cooke, and Shirley Collins, and written a 33 1/3 book on the Replacements' Let It Be, after all. But only now is he letting them show.
Album opener "Don't Carry It All" and first single "Down by the Water," featuring the always-lovely vocals of Gillian Welch, could easily be mistaken for Tom Petty's "You Don't Know How It Feels" or Springsteen's "The Promised Land," with a touch of Harvest-era Neil Young thrown in as well. Meloy has also admitted that he was inspired by R.E.M. while recording King (I've often thought that if the Decemberists could go back in time, they'd choose 1992, so they could record Automatic for the People before Stipe, Mills, Buck, and Berry), and that band's imprint is all over the place, from the Murmur sounding "Calamity Hymn," to the fact that Peter Buck actually plays on the album. Does it still count as ripping someone off when you just get the person you're ripping off to play the song for you?
I don't mention these influences to discredit the album, though; in fact, it's probably the band's second best, after 2005's Picaresque. I mention them because it's nice to hear R.E.M. rather than Rush, Petty instead of preludes. For every highlight of Hazards ("Annan Water"), there were two songs that wouldn't have made the sixth disc of Joanna Newsom's Have One on Me. On King, there's practically nothing in the way of electric guitar solos or stories about pregnant fairies (or whatever), but instead the welcome return of Jenny Conlee's accordion, Nate Query's upright bass, John Moen's complimentary drumming, and Chris Funk's slide guitar playing. There's even some banjo thrown in there ("All Arise!"). They sound tight and together throughout, rather than absentmindedly preparing for every song's big climax like they were last time out.
But the Decemberists' best asset is still Meloy's voice. That was the most disappointing thing about Hazards: his soaring vocals were so often drowned out by the music that the playfulness of his words went unappreciated. But even on King's weakest song, "This Is Why We Fight," Meloy, now back at the front of the mix, sounds energized in a way that he hasn't in a while.
Every song on King presents a different justification for either loving or hating the Decemberists. "Rox in the Box" continues the band's fine tradition of songs involving water ("Get the rocks in the box/Get the water right down to your socks") and death ("There's plenty of men to die, you don't jump your turn"), while "January Hymn," which has the same melody of Wilco's "Bob Dylan's Beard), tells a relatively straightforward story about a long lost love, but with gorgeous imagery: "On a winter's Sunday I go/To clear away the snow/And green the ground below" would put even Dylan (and his beard) to shame.
The album's highlight is "June Hymn," which is either the perfect song to fall asleep or wake up to. It begins with a harmonica and some simple guitar playing, and over the course of four minutes, Meloy describes a summer's day spent among jasmine and yellow bonnets. It's the musical accompaniment to the album's cover art. The King is Dead is a perfectly comfortable and relaxing album. No one song is as good as "On the Bus Mall," the band's greatest triumph, but none are as bad as "The Perfect Crime #2," either. After the last two albums, the Decemberists needed to scale back, and that's exactly what they did. It's the album they needed to make. And it's the album some of us needed to hear.