For their sixth album, The King Is Dead, the Decemberists set out to record an album that embraced the adage “less is more.” This evolution came as a direct result of the indie folk rockers’ wildly ambitious 2009 song cycle, The Hazards of Love, a lofty and elaborate narrative suite that grew out of old English folk tunes and was peopled by Spenserian ladies and fantastic shape-shifting creatures wandering across an enchanted landscape. In his search for what he calls “normal songs,” front man and primary songwriter Colin Meloy abandoned fantasyland and instead pulled together ten concise, uncluttered compositions that pay homage to the influences of Neil Young, R.E.M., the Byrds, even The Band and early Dylan. Meloy was looking to build on a more homespun, pastoral American sound, electing to record the album in a converted barn at Pendarvis Farm outside of Portland. There the group worked hard to make simpler music, and the result is a fine set of stripped-down, country/ roots-based songs, featuring some strong contributions from several guest artists.
Folk singer Gillian Welch, who performs on seven tracks, brings a strong love of Appalachian music and bluegrass to her performances, and the interplay between her voice and Meloy’s is natural and unforced. Their collaboration brings to mind Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, particularly on “Down By The Water.” Both “Water” and “Calamity Song” are straightforward tributes to R.E.M., so it’s appropriate that guitarist Peter Buck appears on these two tracks to add some of his signature chiming guitar work.
Buck also contributes a mandolin line to the album’s opener, “Don’t Carry It All.” The simplicity of this cut sets the musical tone for the rest of the album. “January Hymn” is a soft acoustic ballad. Its companion piece, “June Hymn,” is also simple, sweet and slightly sad; in yet another nod to R.E.M., Meloy channels Michael Stipe’s ability to find the undercurrents of melancholy in a perfect day. Songs like “All Arise!” and “Rise to Me” feature Chris Funk on some fine pedal steel guitar work. “Rox In The Box” harkens back to Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention by taking a traditional-style melody and turning it into a miner’s grim protest song. “Rox” is adorned with rousing fiddle lines contributed by Annalisa Tornfelt, who also plays on two other tracks.
Despite the drive toward musical directness—modal, English-isle folksong- like tunes, a strong and clear rhythmic pulse, the rustic sound of mandolin, fiddle, accordion, and harmonica—the lyrics seem elusive and oblique. At times contemporary allusions pierce through in disconcerting anachronism; at times the poetry promises heartfelt emotion, as in the martial defiance of “This Is Why We Fight. ” But explanation—with a few exceptions, as in the bitter “Rox in the Box”—is teasingly withheld; the actual situation from which the words arise (whether war or love or their aftermath) remains enigmatic. What we’re left with is nostalgia, regret, an almost peasant-like fixation on the turning of the seasons, and moments of prophecy, solidarity, resignation. These songs are surely haunted; but by who knows what ghosts?