(If you bought the Decemberists Record Store Day exclusive pre-release 7-inch, don’t forget to bring in your $2 coupon!)
Recorded in a converted barn on Oregon’s Pendarvis Farm, The King Is Dead eschews the high, mystical wailing of British folk for its North American counterpart. Rustic and roomy, the record nods to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, early Wilco, the Band, Neil Young, and especially R.E.M. In places, it almost feels like a disrobing: “Let the yoke fall from our shoulders,” frontman Colin Meloy bellows on opener “Don’t Carry It All”, his voice loose and easy, freer than he’s sounded in an awfully long time.
Meloy is an established fan of certain strains of Americana music, and he’s enlisted a few inimitable guests: R.E.M.’s Peter Buck plays on three tracks, Gillian Welch sings on seven, and Welch’s songwriting partner, the guitarist Dave Rawlings, appears every so often as a backing vocalist. There are moments when the record’s twang can feel a little overcooked (the Decemberists have never been great at spontaneity, exactly), but there’s an interesting tension between the inherent unpretentiousness of country music– it’s rural, it’s populist, it’s based in universal emotions– and the Decemberists’ literary cartwheeling. So while there’s still plenty of fussy wordplay (“Hetty Green/ Queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab,” Meloy bleats in “Calamity Song”) and at least one Infinite Jest joke, there are also loads of simple, rousing choruses. In the past, Meloy’s ability to write a sweet, memorable melody has occasionally gotten lost, but on King, his songwriting shines. — Pitchfork