The King Is Dead

Sometimes the grand gesture wins the day; the broad sweep of ideas, the layered musical production, the epic song cycle grabs the listener by the ear and says “listen to me.” Certainly this has been the case with the brainy, slightly askew albums of The Decemberists. With each release the band’s ambitions seemed to reach a bit farther into the realm of excess. Colin Meloy’s songs played like epic fables, dipping into dark places, especially on the band’s last album, the prog-rock inspired, The Hazards of Love.

The King Is Dead comes from a different place – literally and figuratively. Meloy, his wife, and child recently moved to a wooded area in Northern Oregon. Perhaps the isolation afforded by the remote location was the impetus for his shorter, more intimate songs. Maybe his rural surroundings encouraged his stripped down production and use of folk instrumentation. Whatever the inspiration, his new songs are the most elemental of his career. Not that there is a lack of poetic prowess. Meloy’s language remains mysterious, complex, inventive, provocative, but there is less of a propensity toward angst. These songs shine with descriptions of seasonal change, rivers, mountains, and the kind of hopefulness inspired by nature. “January Hymn” and “June Hymn” exemplifies this praise of time and place.

Another reason for the lightness – or brightness – of The King is Dead comes thanks to the presence of R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. The album’s 2nd track, “Calamity,” chimes with R.E.M. inspired guitar and rhythms. And lest you think Meloy has completely abandoned his darker parables, the song details the destruction of California as it tumbles into the sea, taking with it its helpless inhabitants. Buck’s mandolin work laces through the opening track “Don’t Carry it All.” Meloy acknowledges that re-acquainting himself with R.E.M.s album Reckoning played a role in his current riding process, a move that took him back to his youth as a budding writer. “I sat down and thought, OK, I'm going to do what I used to do – just make up REM songs." Inviting Buck to play his “fake-Buck” guitar parts was the obvious next step.

In order to capture the countrified sound of his new crop of songs, Meloy and fellow band members gathered at Pendarvis Barn – Meloy got married there – to record the album. As part of this “barn” sound the band landed on inviting singer Gillian Welch to the recording, casting her authentic rustic vocals as ballast for Meloy’s reedy voice. Dave Rawlings also appears. Other members of The Decemberists contribute their pastoral elements,; Jenny Conlee is featured on accordion and numerous keyboards, Chris Funk adds banjo, pedal steel, and Bouzouki to his guitar duties. John Moen handles drums and percussion while Nate Query plays bass. Guest musician Annalisa Tornfelt plays fiddle and Producer Tucker Martine and his wife Laura Veirs also help out.

As a side note - Colin Meloy is penning a series of children’s novels to be illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis. The first of the series is set for release in fall of 2011. My guess is the parents will be enjoying them as much as their kids. This album is one of WYEP's top ten of 2011. Pick up a copy of WYEP's Year in Review book by becoming a member of WYEP.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix Host)