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By Richard Lynch-Smith
The Decemberists are, to many of their fans, a band with a score to settle. Their 2005 breakthrough album, Picaresque, introduced us to their unique reconciliation of traditional ‘storytelling’ elements with an ostentatious yet infectious folk-rock sound. The liner notes credited a ‘French translator’; they’re named after a nineteenth-century Russian uprising, and yet they still didn’t seem that twee.
That is, until 2009 and the release of ‘prog-folk-opera’, Hazards of Love, with its unique reconciliation of medieval balladry with utter bollocks. It sounded like an album produced by five people who’d met on World of Warcraft.
It seems – thankfully – that they’ve got the ‘prog’ out of their system. The King is Dead sees a return to elegant, rootsy lyricism aside looping minor progressions and the drone of the accordion. There is no concept to the album; it is not an alternate, epic ode to The Smiths’ classic song (a fear many no doubt shared).
Indeed, the influences no longer seem so engrained within English musical traditions; there is a distinct country-rock, ‘Americana’ sound that suggests influences firmly on their own side of the Atlantic. The most overt of these influences comes from R.E.M, with Peter Buck in fact appearing as guest guitarist on three tracks. The allusions to their sound are clear; songs such as ‘January Hymn’ and ‘Dear Avery’ start with reserved, arpeggiated-progressions which embellish into multi-layered refrains.
Standout tracks such as opening ‘Don’t Carry It All’ tread a line between the effusive and subtly emotive, the lyrical hook “We are all our hands and holders/Beneath this bold and brilliant sun” typifying the mournful, simple and gently pervasive style that frontman Colin Meloy has made his own. Across the album as a whole the band manage to present their stylistic influence without ever becoming a pastiche.
Songs such as ‘All Arise!’ may on first listen present themselves as a break from morose lyricism, but come second, third and fourth play the same familiar and heartening angst lurks beneath the surface.
In general, this album rewards repeat playing in the way its predecessor did not. Gone are the baroque, pseudo pretensions; back is the understated, beautiful and cathartic core. Without wishing to tempt fate, it seems ‘prog’ was just a phase they went through…