From the opening blast of harmonica on opener ‘Don’t Carry It All’, it’s clear that Colin Meloy and co. have stripped back to their roots. That’s not to say there’s no outside influence; the frontman admits the album is an homage to REM, something which goes beyond the occasional guest appearance from Peter Buck’s guitar jangle. Restrained yet wonderfully composed, it’s an approach it’s hard not to warm to.
Meloy’s innate ability to tell a story remains strong, raising what might be an otherwise fine record way above many of its peers. Standout ‘Down By The Water’ takes a Buck riff that would bless the best Stipe vocal and adds a drawling lilt that seems almost timeless in quality. ‘Rox In The Box’ adds good-time singalong to the mix with a counting chorus purpose-built for the clash of grog-filled pint glasses, while ‘This Is Why We Fight’ is the kind of song that makes drunken men lock shoulders, sing loud and get a bit teary.
There is still a significant cache of emotional balladry to be found, however: the matching pair of ‘January Hymn’ and ‘June Hymn’ are especially memorable, while ‘Rise To Me’ has a hint of the Neil Young to it. It’s at these moments Meloy’s way with words seem to be especially poignant, especially when his vocal is played off against bandmate Jenny Conlee’s warmer tones.
‘The King Is Dead’ may deal in one-off stories more than intertwining tales, but that only goes to strengthen the merits of its individual parts. Possibly containing some of the strongest one off moments in The Decemberists’ repertoire to date, there’s a fuzzy familiarity that can’t purely be put down to Buck. Sometimes, it seems, stripping back offers so much more.
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