This time around, though, the band went for a more straightforward approach, nodding to the Smiths and REM (the latter's Peter Buck even appears as a guest on the album). These influences are felt quite strongly on the disc, which is not a bad thing. Had I never known that the Decemberists were capable of building new, singularly unique artistic avenues, I may be far more impressed with The King Is Dead. Had this album come from a different band, it might be easier to praise it as a solid collection of individual songs, with well-timed and well-intentioned instrumental breaks, lush arrangements (but tastefully so), and interesting layers of loquacious lyricism.
But, it's the Decemberists we're talking about here. For them to simply present ten separate songs which make enough sense together to be collected in one place, somehow falls short of their potential.
Highlights and Best Songs
Much like the bands to which the record tips its hat (it's named after the Smiths' The Queen Is Dead), the songs on The King Is Dead are largely dark love songs, ruminating via Meloy's complicated lyricism on complicated emotions. "Rox in the Box" (purchase/download) is a terrific Pogues-ish number showing off the band's solid folk and bluegrass roots, while likely appealing to more mainstream tastebuds. Gillian Welch's presence on "Down by the Water" (purchase/download) is quite a bit more than mentionable, and in fact lends itself to one of the finest moments on the disc. Though you may not be able to tell that's her singing back there, it's easy to feel her influence on the tune.
"June Hymn" (purchase/download) is a beautiful, simple and stripped-down tune, and possibly the best love song on the whole album.
The Bottom Line
Where the Decemberists have, in the past, delivered sweeping, mind-expanding artistic statements, stretched across entire albums, this time they went for a much smaller goal, allowing each song to speak for itself. As such, the disc is undoubtedly full of good songwriting. Taken all together, though, compared to previous recordings, The King Is Dead falls just short of the bar they've set in the past.