The King Is Dead is the new album by the artistically ambitious folk-rock group The Decemberists and it stands in immediate contrast to the three albums that preceded it. Starting out with a reasonably conventional indie sound, albeit one frequently augmented by fiddles and banjos, this band has gradually evolved into a kind of prog-folk behemoth, with extended song cycles, heavy electric freak-outs and ten minute faux-medieval ballads and sea shanties rife. If this sounds hopelessly indulgent, it should be noted that they nearly always get away with it, due to band leader Colin Meloy’s great gift as a songwriter, the group’s all-round proficiency and taste, and the sense you get that these sometimes quite lurid epics aren’t really supposed to be taken that seriously.
So the new album is shocking right away to fans of the group for being almost sarcastically straightforward: ten short, disciplined songs performed with flair but without gratuitous ornamentation that last barely forty minutes. Lyrically it’s just as restrained – whereas previous Decemberist albums would have body counts reaching into double figures, with forest spirits, abandoned infants and the ghosts of Civil war soldiers livening up the cast lists, here the words tend towards the rural and seasonal: farms, flowers, snow, rivers. The arrangements fit this theme like a glove: the music sounds variously like The Band, Van Morrison, Simon and Garfunkel (the lovely January Hymn), and most strikingly, REM circa Fables Of The Reconstruction (Meloy must have realised this – he hired Peter Buck to play guitar on a number of tracks).
It takes a few plays to adjust yourself to this new radio-friendly Decemberists (well, sort of radio-friendly, Meloy’s voice will always be a bit of an acquired taste), and initially I was a bit suspicious that this might just be a bit of a commercial cop-out, in the manner of Beefheart’s Unconditionally Guaranteed. But I’ve now been listening to the thing more or less on a loop for two days, and I now put my hands up and surrender: this is fabulous. Not a weak track on it, no compromise involved and it would be just lovely if they could now score a hit single (This Is Why We Fight might be the most obvious candidate, but any song here is worthy). Long live The King.