After a decade on the indie rock scene, the Decemberists have gone from a tiny, arty project to a thing of great grandeur (and even a bit of mainstream attention). Following the breakout success of 2003’s Her Majesty the Decemberists and 2005’s Picaresque, the band signed a major label deal that has yielded a pair of albums of increasing exposure (2006’s The Crane Wife and 2009’s The Hazards of Love, which peaked at number 14 on the Billboard album chart). But as their profile has grown, so has their sound, and there were a lot of people who thought The Hazards of Love was getting to large in scope.
But their latest album The King is Dead — which hit store shelves on Tuesday (January 18) — is a bit of a return to form for the band, at least according to the largely positive reviews. “What’s remarkable is how much richness and beauty the group has folded into the 40-minute album,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Will Hermes. “The melodies are sticky, the harmonies sumptuous, the arrangements (centering on guitars, fiddle, accordion, harmonica and pedal steel) unfussy. Mastermind Colin Meloy hasn’t abandoned his lust for Scrabble-champ words (’gabardine,’ ’plinth’) and fantastical narratives. But he’s figured out how to work both into compact songs without disturbing the flow.”
Spin, which has long been a supporter of the Decemberists (and particularly of frontman and songwriter Meloy), appreciated the shift in focus but also felt slightly let down. “Ten crisp roots-rock tunes in a mere 40 minutes, The King Is Dead finds the Decemberists in serious course-correction mode — which is a relief, if also kind of sad,” wrote critic Mikael Wood. “Hazards sorta sucked, it’s true, but you had to admire the band’s chutzpah; here they seem a little chastened, and the result is an relatively unweighty effort from these career overachievers.” Still, Wood enjoyed the clear R.E.M. influences that were all over the album — which makes sense, considering Peter Buck guests on a few tracks.
Still, not everybody is as on board. Margaret Wappler of the Los Angeles Times gave the album two stars (out of a possible four), declaring it “the showy wunderkind in theater class earnestly laboring through an Arthur Miller monologue when all he wants to do is stand up and trill at the top of his lungs.” And she didn’t particularly enjoy the R.E.M. nods. “The King Is Dead clings so closely to formula that it doesn’t sound like homage or even truth; it sounds like the studious but unconvincing work of an extremely gifted mimic.”
But Michael Hann of The Guardian endorsed the simplification of the band’s sound and appreciated that just because it’s smaller doesn’t mean it’s inferior. “Though the craftsmanship is evident — in the delicacy of the pair of seasonal ballads ’June Hymn’ and ’January Hymn,’ in the hillbilly-ballad-cum-indierocker ’Rox in the Box’ — it sounds as though Meloy has allowed instinct to supplement his intellect,” he wrote. “A relatively understated delight from a band few might have suspected capable of understatement.”
What do you think of the new Decemberists album? Let us know in the comments!