Sound — 7
It's hard not to classify it as a concept album, what with the Portland group having trudged through the depths of rock opera on The Hazards Of Love. While their 2009 release recited the tale of a woman falling madly in love with a shape-shifter, The King Is Dead strangles indie with 12-string guitars, vocal harmonies and an abundance of toe-tapping harmonica bits. The Decemberists themselves claimed their primary influence was R.E.M. and while guitarist Peter Buck takes credit for three tracks, the disc more or less mourns folk rock, representing the charm and emotion embedded in works penned by Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. Counterparts Arcade Fire were fueled by their musicianship as well but the conclusion was a more modern sound. The Decemberists take is more nostalgic; "Don't Carry It All" is a righteous folk jam and "Calamity Song", along with "Rise To Me" pit 90s' alternative against country dripping with more Dylan than Strait. Preference is a decision-maker; there are cuts extracting too much from roots rock ("All Arise"), thus overshadowing the devious sting the quintet employed in the past (see "The Wanting Comes In Waves"). No one likes a twang-hater, but after short bursts of R.E.M. homage here and there, it can be agonizing to indulge in the exceptional skill inflicted on a genre regularly overlooked.
Lyrics — 8
The lyrical content of The King Is Dead may not be as artistic as the band's last theatrical masterpiece yet in a way, it still manages to mesmerize without the use of excessive imagery. "You were waking, day was breaking, a panoply of song / The summer comes to Springville," wails vocalist Colin Meloy on "June Hymn" over a gentle melody, forging elements that build the essence of folk rock. One can simply pick up a six-string, throw in a stereotypical accent and call themselves country, but Meloy and the rest of The Decemberists seem to express the pain and the soul-driven protests you'd expect from a 70s' troubadour. "This Is Why We Fight" reeks of R.E.M., though it's coated in a voice rock fans never tire of. Neil Young helped deliver it into the world, pioneers such as Pearl Jam and The Tragically Hip eased its way into new generations and The Decemberists have taken the blues-riddled torch, branding Meloy as an indie revolutionary, not a conformist.
Overall Impression — 7
2010 was almost a mirror-image of 2009; pop became relentless and rock spent hours trying to decide on what digs to wear. The King Is Dead strips away anything anticipated for 2011. The folk resurrection isn't new, but it demands to be heard. The vocal arrangements and instrumentation act simple, but sound creative. The group's ability to transform themselves into rural artists after claiming a pedestal with "influential" rock compositions is a dramatic change, one would say that's better. Redefining your voice with the same paint is tiresome, especially when there's other mediums to be used. Showcasing a handful of influences and the skill to be comprehensive is rewarding, even if listeners can't get lost in the album's new take on folk rock.