Album Review: The King is Dead

★★★★☆

The Decemberists, an Oregon-based brainchild of frontman Colin Meloy, have emerged from their farm to debut ten acoustic, country/folk songs for their sixth studio album, The King is Dead.

The record is a leap from the band's usual repertoire, leaving behind lengthy pirate jigs and folklore-inspired love ballads for shorter, rustic country/folk songs with harmonica wails and songwriting that would make Bob Dylan proud.

The album's feel can be summed up by the first track, "Don't Carry It All." It's a twangy departure from the band's 2009 rock opera, The Hazards of Love. It is simple, a song beaming with harmonica and acoustic guitar about a community bearing the weight of a death together: "Let the yoke fall from our shoulders / Don't carry it all, don't carry it all / We are all hands and holders / Beneath this bold and brilliant sun / And this I swear to all."

R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck plays guitar on three tracks including the album's first single, "Down by the Water." The song could almost be mistaken for R.E.M. but Meloy's distinct voice is the driving force. Sounding more clear, free and unrestrained than it has in some time, Meloy's vocals flow as he reminisces about his days as "some towhead teen," struggling through the ups and downs of being young, living below the poverty line and filled with adolescent storm as he rolls "down the old main drag."

Singer-songwriter Gillian Welch sings on seven of the album's tracks, giving songs like "Rise to Me," "June Hymn" and "All Arise!" a necessary vocal backing. Welch's voice gives these songs a tender feel, balancing out the more boisterous Meloy.

Unlike The Hazards of Love, a concept album about a woman who falls in love with a shape-shifting forest dweller – complete with forest-sex, a domineering queen and infanticide –The King is Dead steers clear of conceptual tactics. In fact, this is the group's first album since 2005's Picaresque that isn't at least partially conceptualized.

This should not turn off existing Decemberists fans. The King is Dead retains many trademarks of the band to keep its most hardcore fans listening: lyrics with complex composition and obscure words, historical references and instrumentation that call for a dictionary and Wikipedia access at the ready and the constant ability to transport the listener into the songs.

Your mind will not travel to a dark, fairytale forest or a pirate's schooner listening to The King is Dead, but rather to a hot summer's day on the farm with beads of sweat rolling down your back.