One of the major complaints against the Decemberists’ previous work is that it’s inaccessible. Listeners tend to struggle with concept albums, and every Decemberist album has been a concept album. The story is different for “The King is Dead.” There doesn’t seem to be a story. The question is whether this makes it easier for the mainstream listener to swallow.
The answer is a hearty yes. The album succeeds without a storyline that requires the listener’s constant attention. At the same time, the band hasn’t sold out either. The instrumental approach to the album is not a typical rock band affair.
The band has always had a somewhat rustic feel about its quieter tracks. The album gets off to an instantly folk-like feel during the opener “Don’t Carry It All,” but the rest of the album goes even further. The plucking in the track “Calamity Song” makes it sound like an old country tune, and the violin and guest vocals of Gillian Welch (of “O Brother Where Art Thou?” fame) make “Rox in the Box” almost bluegrass in nature.
A big part of the album’s sound is the band’s outside influences. Vocalist Colin Meloy stated he wanted to imitate R.E.M. on the album, and it shows. If R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe took Meloy’s place for many of the tracks, they’d be right at home on “Murmur.” It doesn’t hurt that R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck plays on three of the tracks on “The King is Dead.”
Tracks like “January Hymn” and “June Hymn” seem to suggest that Meloy has a story in the back of his mind for the album’s 10 tracks, but if he does, its much more subtle than his previous efforts. The lack of an overriding concept might turn off some Decemberists fans, but these tracks are great by themselves.