My relationship with The Decemberists has been a rocky one. I started listening to the band when I first got into indie music, and was immediately stricken by their extremely thorough songwriting, and a sound I equated to an 18th century shipyard. It was a completely new experience. As time went on, however, hearing a song would only grate on my nerves. The sound was too ornate, too intricate — and it was unsuitable to extended listening.
So it’s completely surprising that the band’s newest album, The King Is Dead, has completely won me over, thanks to a new direction in the group’s sound. Past Decemberists albums were downright orchestral, featuring dozens of instruments on any given song, often sounding indulgent or gilded. The King Is Deadleaves this tradition by the wayside, with far fewer instruments on each track.
The King is Deadis a much more accessible album. Hearing the band singing and playing so comparatively stripped down feels earnest — much more in line with the band’s indie-folk roots. Most importantly, by not weighing down the sound with dozens upon dozens of instruments, the arrival of a harmonica or accordion feels vital and fresh.
While I felt a new stance on instrumentation helped lend new life to The King Is Dead, vocals by lead singer Colin Meloy and multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee are laudable. Meloy’s voice brings a powerful identity to the album. Meloy has sang for a long time about bringing a life together and surviving through hard times, but this was the first time I’ve ever believed him. It’s a remarkable transformation, and propels the band to even greater heights. In comparison, Jenny Conlee’s breathtaking voice proves the perfect counterweight for Meloy’s, and her harmonies help make the album truly special.
For the first time in years, I’m excited about The Decemberists. The band has transformed their trademark sound of 10 years effortlessly, and it breathes a completely new life into their music. The King Is Dead is a testament to the idea that less is more–and that notion is executed flawlessly.