Down by the Water
The last time we heard from The Decemberists, on 2009's The Hazards of Love, they were lost in the dense forest of a prog-inflected, 17-track experimental concept album. A mythic folk-rock opera of vaudevillian villains, fairies and doomed earthly lovers that was inspired by Anne Briggs' 1963 a cappella folk EP, it saw the band's smart, savvy songwriting overdressed as gothic folly. Making it "took a lot out of" singer Colin Meloy - and listening to it, many fans felt the same way.
Fortunately, rather than releasing an even more grandiose, darkly dramatic follow-up, they've chipped off the embellishments, reined in the pomp and walked towards the light. The bookish Portland five-piece started life as indie-mongers with a penchant for English folk, and their sixth album recaptures their youth, only now they've shifted their allegiance back over the pond. Despite, bizarrely, being titled like a riposte to The Smiths, The King Is Dead - which was recorded in a remote barn for maximum country flavour - is their Americana record, where the sun dapples the water and you can't move but hit your Stetson on a twanging acoustic guitar.
Or, in this case, on an authenticity-boosting guest musician - roots luminary Gillian Welch lends her vocals to several tracks, and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck strums on three. But even without their help, this album would have been convincing. It is, simply, a thing of beauty, its hook quotient the highest of The Decemberists' discography. The scaled-down (for them - these things are relative) arrangements ebb and flow, as Neil Young-ian harmonica and mandolin anthems (Don't Carry It All) and sing-along gypsy stomps (Rox in the Box) are hushed by delicate, gorgeously melodic meditations with simple guitar accompaniment (January Hymn). The lyrics, appropriately, aren't as abstruse as usual, though they'll still keep sales of the OED healthy.
The only downside - apart from the lumbering plodder Rise to Me, which has a hay-chewing instrumental - is that some of Meloy's acknowledged inspiration arrives too directly from its source. After listening to Reckoning, he set out to write an homage to R.E.M. and seems to have succeeded a little too well. Still, at least Buck isn't likely to sue.