It’s possible to imagine The Decemberists’ sixth album being met simultaneously with tearful “We’ve lost them for good” laments from diehard adherents to the band’s Kill Rock Stars-era geek-rock eccentricities and enthusiastic “Come to papa” cries from the Americana/Triple-A contingent welcoming Colin Meloy and company to the fold. While The King Is Dead finds the former Band Most Likely To Be Called “Dickensian” channeling Neil Young and vintage R.E.M., collaborating with Gillian Welch and Peter Buck, and simplifying their song structures amid the swoop of steel guitar, it’s also true that the band has been confounding expectations and employing stylistic switch-ups at least since 2004’s The Tain EP. They’ve dipped into prog rock (the latter-named release), straight-across-the-plate indie-pop (The Crane Wife), and rock opera (The Hazards Of Love), so real Decemberists fans should be used to these shifts by now. And instead of complaining about the soullessness of life under the major-label umbrella, naysayers ought to be examining the band’s true aesthetic motivations for taking an earthier, more straightforward approach on The King Is Dead.
As those who comb the web ceaselessly for Colin Meloy tidbits already know, R.E.M. admirer Meloy decided to let his fan flag fly by bringing in the Athens icons’ axeman, Peter Buck (whom the band met when he backed up Robyn Hitchock, opening act on the Hazards Of Love tour) and indulging a serious Michael Stipe fixation on the overtly R.E.M.-ish “Calamity Song” and “Down By The Water.” Apparently, up to now we were all so busy noting Meloy’s vocal similarities to Hitchcock that his Stipe tendencies breezed right by us. Another Hitchcock cohort, Gillian Welch (boy, for a Brit, Robyn hangs with a lot of twangy Yanks) pops up on the album as well, challenging Meloy for the Reediest Pipes in Town title on “Down By The Water.”
And the Americana vibe doesnt’ stop there — The estate of Townes Van Zandt should get a cut of the take for the minor-key country/folk track “Rox In The Box” just based on the first 10 seconds of the song, let alone the rest. Meanwhile, “Don’t Carry It All” sounds like it could have been dug up from the outtake archives of Neil Young’s Harvest sessions, and “All Arise!” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an early-’70s Grateful Dead album. But unlike The Crane Wife, which did go too far in the sanding down of The Decemberists’ innate quirkiness, The King Is Dead represents the embrace of simplicity as part of a larger stylistic shift embracing a specific kind of songwriting approach, not just a reflexive action, and the difference shows in the greater emotional impact of the tunes here.