[Capitol; 2011]

The Decemberists’ 2006 major-label debut, The Crane Wife, was notable for bringing to the fore the Portland outfit’s underlying ‘70s prog leanings, while sacrificing none of the hyperliterate pop sensibilities of their earlier work. Its 2009 follow-up, The Hazards of Love, took these influences even further—it was a nearly impenetrable concept album that two years later I’m still entirely not sure what the concept was. That album was successful the way Tales From Topographic Oceans was successful, a triumph of mood over melody. And by all indications, frontman Colin Meloy decided that Hazards took the group’s prog mode to its logical conclusion, because their country-tinged sixth album, The King is Dead, is more or less a total 180. By stripping away all conceptual conceits and focusing strictly on the songwriting, Meloy and his bandmates have crafted their most direct, concise album to date, at the expense only of a little of the group’s left-of-center aesthetic.

The album’s title is an obvious allusion to one of the Decemberists’ most prominent influences, the Smiths, but the primary alt-rock touchstone on The King is Dead is midperiod R.E.M. Peter Buck plays on three of the album’s strongest songs (“Don’t Carry it All,” “Calamity Song,” and “Down by the Water”), and while collaboration with the band is clearly just a few-songs-and-the-seal-of-approval arrangement (as opposed to a Modest Mouse/Johnny Marr thing, speaking of the Smiths), his stamp is all over this album: “Down by the Water” and “Rise to Me” would sound right at home on Green or Out of Time.

People who find Meloy too clever for his own good—and this is a fairly large contingent—should embrace The King is Dead. There are a few nods to the group’s wordier past (like “I could grab you by the nape of your neck,” from the closer “Dear Avery”), but for the most part, Meloy stays out of the way and lets the melodies do the talking. After the last two records gave them all the room they wanted to stretch out, guitarist Chris Funk and keyboardist Jenny Conlee are oddly restrained. So much so, in fact, that there are times when The King is Dead feels like a Colin Meloy solo album rather than a full-band effort.

In retrospect, the country direction The King is Dead takes could have been predicted by two of the best songs on The Hazards of Love, “Annan Water” and “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned).” But on the new album, the uncharacteristically light and unassuming tone works both for and against the band. There’s no doubt that the writing is solid, and there’s not a bad song to be found here. On the flip side, there also isn’t a lot that ranks with their best work. “Rox in the Box” and “Rise to Me” come close, but the lack of depth takes away somewhat from the band’s personality. The King is Dead is a few layers of vocal harmony away from being a Fleet Foxes record, which is fine, but the Decemberists are at their best when they sound like themselves.