By 2011, the sonic direction The Decemberists had been heading was becoming increasingly complex, and quite a bit different from their earlier records. Early listeners of the band were drawn to the band's unique baroque pop twist on folk, creating a sort of Pacific Northwest hybrid of indie rock and indie folk. By the time Picaresque came out in 2005, the band was becoming one of the most respected bands within the indie folk style, although their mainstream success was quite limited at the time. This is where the story takes a twist, though; following Picaresque, the band began delving deeper into progressive rock and, dare I say, metal. To the band's credit, The Crane Wife (2007) and the even heavier release Hazards of Love (2009), both turned out to be solid releases, especially The Crane Wife. Nevertheless, frontman Colin Meloy had grown tired of the extensive recording processes required to create albums like those, especially Hazards of Love. Meloy wanted to dial it back for The King is Dead, stating, “Next record, we’re gonna do like two weeks in a barn. In some ways, it was a euphemism that we made happen. After the crazy puzzle of Hazards of Love, everybody was excited to try to make a regular record this time around.” That was exactly what they did, creating a record with Neil Young’s Harvest record of 1972 in mind.
Upon release, The King is Dead received generally positive reviews upon release, but the hype was limited, notably by NME scoring the record 4/10. With the record now being 13 years in the rearview mirror, a legacy has emerged surrounding the record, which did indeed end up housing many of the bands most well known tracks. The records stripped down sound really does sound like it was recorded in a barn, which makes sense as it was recorded over a six week period at a farm in Oregon. Meloy was looking for a more laid back vibe for the record, along noting his headspace was in a different place than it was on Hazards of Love. Meloy griped that there was simply too much layering and post-production that had gone into the last record and they were just over it. The stripped down indie folk record turned out to be a keeper though. The King is Dead sounds like the fairytale land that east-coaster make out the Pacific Northwest to be; a land of peaceful, sprawling forests and mountains, filled with mysticism, forgiveness and of course, harmonica and violin wielding free spirits.
Although the title of the "finest" song by The Decemberists tends to be awarded to The Mariner’s Revenge Song, and we would have to agree, catchy tracks like Don’t Carry It All and especially Down by the Water can come pretty close. The record's opening track Don’t Carry It All immediately calls longtime Decemberists fans back to the Picaresque days, crafting an immediately nostalgic song, equally folk as it is rock. The harmonica-laced track propels a direct heartwarming lesson through Meloy’s lyrics, with the band playing an equally uplifting tune behind the frontman.
Later on the record, Down by the Water emits an equally nostalgic sound, although this time perhaps in a more somber direction through the mournful lyrics hidden behind the uptempo, bright instrumentation. This time around, the harmonica bears similarity to an old-school Neil Young sound, something the band had in mind during recording. Interestingly enough, playing alongside Meloy are R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and country artist Gillian Welch, with Welch’s voice heard backing up Meloy.
Although it’s certainly not riddled with guitar solos, The King is Dead was uniquely a guitar album, utilizing electric and acoustic guitars throughout, often with the acoustic being more of the focal point. The “sitting around a campfire” guitar feel comes through often with simplistic tracks like January Hymn and June Hymn pairing well with the more electrifying songs like This Is Why We Fight or Rox in the Box. The band pairs a traditional Americana sound really well with the rock-heavy remnants of Hazards of Love. Speedy, country-style guitar picking on This Is Why We Fight sounds fantastic through top-notch speakers—rock-forward, yet still distinctly Americana—before a spacious guitar solo prepares the closing section of the track.
The closing track Dear Avery takes the band's sound in their most dramatic country direction; not even really "country rock," but more so just their own version of country. The emotional pedal steel playing, taking over the melody for the closing moments of the record is incredibly beautiful, something that can sincerely stop you in your tracks. A powerful closer on a record is often a go-to for musicians, and songs like this show you don’t always need volume and intensity to be powerful.
Although the record reintroduced a more folk-centric sound, missed by many listeners on the band's previous record, this folk-centric sound was reintroduced without some of the mythical lyrical matter that made early Decemberists records so unique. Meloy’s lyrics on The King is Dead were perhaps more "direct" and less open to interpretation, for better or worse. Nevertheless, Meloy still created a record virtually void of duds, with considerably above-average lyrics.
Now having The Decemberists' entire discography to look back upon, it’s clear that The King is Dead was one of their best showings, coming at a time when listeners thought this type of sound was no longer in the cards for them. Certain points shine brighter than others, of course, but the record can go toe-to-toe with most indie folk records released since. To take it even a step further, although Picaresque ought to be held in higher regard than The King is Dead, it’s still one of the Top 100 indie rock records of all time.