The King Is Dead

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.

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From The Archives Issue 1122: January 20, 2011