http://assets-s3.rollingstone.com/assets/images/album_review/17501a3039e6f0dbcbd97b9688a4489d985d0ab7.jpg The King Is Dead

The Decemberists

The King Is Dead

Rolling Stone: star rating
Community: star rating
5 4 0
January 18, 2011

Click to listen to The Decemberists' "Down By the Water"

When a 12-and-a-half-minute murder ballad ("The Island," from 2006's The Crane Wife) stands as one of your more concise career high points, it's probably time to consider reining things in. That's just what the Decemberists — the Portland, Oregon, band known for its complex story-songs about fairy queens and shape-shifting lovers — have done on The King Is Dead. What's remarkable is how much richness and beauty the group has folded into the 40-minute album: 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.

Gallery: The Decemberists Perform in New York City

Meloy and his band had some help. R.E.M.'s back catalog provided some templates: "Calamity Song" sounds like it was lifted from Murmur, and guitarist Peter Buck does a great Peter Buck impression on three songs. Also crucial is Gillian Welch, whose close harmonies buoy everything. Per usual, Meloy's lyrics are elliptical and ornate, with phrases conjuring the distant past ("a wreath of trillium and ivy") or tweaking the present ("the chewable Ambien tab"). But more than ever, his songs savor straightforward pleasures. On "June Hymn," the album's most gorgeous track, a tremulous Meloy rhymes "bloom," "boom," "maroon" and "living room" over strummed guitar like a crushed-out poetry student. For a band able to push the limits of songwriting, it's a revelation, and a chance to see how deep simplicity goes. Very deep, it turns out.

Gallery: Keep up with rock's hottest photos in Random Notes

Album Review Main Next


Community Guidelines »
loading comments

loading comments...


Sort by:
    Read More
    Around the Web
    Powered By ZergNet
    Daily Newsletter

    Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

    Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
    marketing partners.


    We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

    Song Stories

    “Long Walk Home”

    Bruce Springsteen | 2007

    When the subject of this mournful song returns home, he hardly recognizes his town. Springsteen told Rolling Stone the alienation the man feels is a metaphor for life in a politically altered post-9/11 America. “Who would have ever thought we’d live in a country without habeas corpus?” he said. “That’s Orwellian. That’s what political hysteria is about and how effective it is. I felt it in myself. You get frightened for your family, for your home. And you realize how countries can move way off course, very far from democratic ideals.”

    More Song Stories entries »