The Decemberists have always been best taken in small doses. Whether it’s Colin Meloy’s nasally vocals (he and Joanna Newsom are Erin’s two favorite singers to mock impersonate), the band’s graduate school aesthetic (the words “panoply,” “gabardine” and “trillium” all turn up on the new album, as does the lyric, “Hetty Green / Queen of supply-side bonhomie bone-drab / (Know what I mean?)”), or its frequently pretentious gestures (as with the prior album, 2009’s The Hazards of Love, a sprawling, disastrous prog-rock operatic epic about a woman named Margaret and her shape-shifting lover, who happens to have a forest queen for a mom), a little of these quirky Portland indie rockers goes a long way.
Until, that is, The King Is Dead. A little folk rock gem that borrows heavily from early R.E.M. (perhaps because Peter Buck turns up on three songs here), The King Is Dead is a beautifully concise set of ten songs that range from country to Americana to rock. It’s the first Decemberists album you’ll actually want to listen to from start to finish.
Highlights include the opener “Don’t Carry It All,” in which Meloy implores the listener (or maybe the band itself) to “let the yoke fall from our shoulders”; “Rox in the Box,” which sounds like an Irish folk singalong with its accordion and “one-two-three” chorus; the twangy, fiddle-driven “All Arise!”; and the lovely closer “Dear Avery,” one of several songs featuring Gillian Welch on backup vocals.
Long time Decemberists fans may be dismayed by an album stripped of the band’s trademark quirks, an album this accessible (and popular — it debuted at number one on the Billboard list, prompting Meloy to respond, with uncharacteristic brevity, “Wow. Weird”). Their loss is our gain. As Ben’s jazz band director used to say, “Keep it simple, stupid.” Meloy and crew should keep taking that advice.