Highlights: Rox In The Box, Down By The Water, June Hymn, This Is Why We Fight
It's hard to understand some wild criticism this album has managed to generate. Hard, because there's nothing here that The Decemberists hadn't done before. Well, they've slightly countrified their lush, tuneful folk-rock for The King Is Dead, but it is not as if it led to some dramatic changes in sound or Colin Meloy's songwriting. They are as good as ever - only slightly more upbeat, slightly more straightforward.
In fact, this may well be the band's most immediate album to date. There are no Hazards Of Love styled progressive leanings this time around, no conceptual faux-intellectual pretensions - just a collection 10 perfectly accessible, perfectly catchy songs. I wouldn't consider myself a big fan of the rather too predictable country send-up "All Arise!" (still a lot of fun), but otherwise it's pretty much all I would wish from a Decemberists album. Tasteful acoustic guitars, cellos, accordions, lots of harmonica memorable tunes - what's not to love? The rocking lead-off single, "Down By The Water" (featuring Peter Buck on guitar), is particularly good - with its inspired melody and brilliant harmonies from no other than Gillian Welch. Also, I absolutely love the insanely catchy "Rox In The Box" that contrasts its nursery rhyme-like joyfulness with Meloy's typically grim-yet-amusing lyrics. And then there's the gentle, pastoral "January Hymn", which sounds like Fleet Foxes with a little bit more substance.
So overall The King Is Dead is a good, worthy addition to the band's catalogue. They dumbed it all down a bit, made it simpler - but not to an extent where they would have to lose their style or intelligence.