Taking a look back at the breakthrough record from The Decemberists called The King is Dead brings back a flood of memories about what was going on in the music scene at that time. It seemed as if indie rock and folk rock were merging forces to become the new “it” genre that music fans, and critics alike, couldn’t get enough of. Bands such as Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, and The Decemberists were gaining momentum at just the right time. This album would be The Decemberists first album to chart at the top of the Billboard 200, and the opening single “Down By The Water” also experienced success on the Modern Rock chart as well. Prior to this album’s release, front-man Colin Meloy stated in an interview, “If there’s anything academic about this record, or me trying to force myself in a direction, it was realizing that the last three records were really influenced by the British folk revival […] this whole world that I was discovering, that I was poring over, learning inside-out. It was a wanting to get away from that. And looking back into more American traditions, reconnecting with more American music.” By getting more in-tune with these American traditions and stylistic choices on found on this album, The Decemberists were able to release their most successful and accessible record to date.
Many of the songs found on this record are focused on the four seasons, and the feelings that come as one season unfolds into the next. The opener, “Don’t Carry It All,” has this concept firmly in its sights as Meloy sings, “Here we come to a turning of the season / Witness to the arc towards the sun / The neighbors blessed burden, within reason / Becomes a burden borne of all in one.” The backing vocals and harmonies by Gillian Welch on the chorus really helped solidify the sound the band were going for on the strong opening statement.
”Calamity Song” follows with some steadfast acoustic guitar and an up-beat tempo to avoid losing the momentum gained from the first track. It remains one of my favorite songs the band has ever recorded, and it still sounds as refreshing as I remember listening back to it today. What the band does well on this particular song is to tell a story of the end of times without getting too bogged down with dreary sounds and darker moods. Meloy sings confidently on the opening verse, “Had a dream / You and me and the war of the end times / And I believe / California succumbed to the fault line / We heaved relief / As scores of innocents died.” The track also includes a guest appearance from R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, and Meloy credits a lot of the musical direction found on this album to R.E.M. as well.
The first half of the album is filled with more up-beat tunes such as “Rox in the Box,” and two tender ballads in the form of “Rise To Me” and “January Hymn.” The record picks up the majority of its momentum on the first single released, “Down By the Water,” as it pierces through the speakers with some great drumming by John Moen and well-placed harmonica throughout. The chorus features some great shared melodies with Gillian Welch as they harmonize on the lyrics of, “The season rubs me wrong / The summer swells anon / So knock me down, tear me up / But I would bear it all broken just to fill my cup / Down by the water and / Down by the old main drag.” It’s a perfect choice of an introductory single to an album that is filled with so many redeeming moments.
The indie folk continues to teeter into the Americana genre with some great guest violin by Annalisa Tornfelt on “All Arise!” to make for a rich, textured sound for the band to rally around. “June Hymn” follows the track with some well thought out lyrics about the changing of seasons, and the memories and emotions that come flooding through our headspace as the temperatures rise. Meloy sings passionately about the summer coming to Springville Hill, and the bridge of “And years from now / When this old light isn’t ambling anymore / Will I bring myself to write / ‘I give my best to Springville Hill'” is beautifully composed and hits all the right chords.
For those still unsure if The Decemberists are right for them, check out the song “This is Why We Fight.” Its a sprawling blast of upbeat indie rock that is packed with rich emotion hinged on every lyric. The closing moments of “So come to me / Come to me now / Lay your arms around me / And this is why / This is why / We fight / Come hell,” is particularly powerful, as the band starts and stops each line with newfound passion to make each word feel its lasting impact.
Album closer, “Dear Avery” brings the record full circle with a track centered around an acoustic guitar and Meloy’s trademark croon to make for a haunting final statement on an album that is filled with so much raw emotion. Meloy sings on the second verse, “Headstrong, you and your long arms / Listing lazily on the cusp of your tease / But you were my Avery and when you needed saving / I could just grab you by the nape of your neck,” and the lyrics are as well thought out as you would expect from a veteran songwriter.
Much like the opening line of “Here we come to a turning of the season,” it appeared as if the music scene was also turning its focus onto indie and folk rock to give them their moment of recognition. Much like the other bands that were getting noticed during this time period, The Decemberists took full advantage of this renaissance of folk rock and were able to take their music to bigger audiences. The newfound recognition of their music only further allowed for The Decemeberists to continue to expand upon the elements introduced on this record in new and exciting ways on their subsequent releases. The King is Dead sounds like an ending, but in many ways it feels like a new beginning for a band coming into their own at the perfect time.