The Decemberists have made a career out of injecting traditional folk-rock with lit-nerd excess, but 2009’s overwrought concept album The Hazards of Love stuffed in one too many hoary mythological clichés for its own good. The result was an album that required a lot of effort (and maybe a map of Middle-earth) to get through. Despite another Tolkien-esque title, The King is Dead is a thankfully less complex, more concise collection of straightforward Americana-tinged rock. King sounds carefully crafted to sound, well, less carefully crafted, and frontman Colin Meloy sounds genuinely happy to not be working toward a convoluted grand statement this time out. “Let the yoke fall from our shoulders,” he sings on album opener “Don’t Carry It All,” and the nine remaining tracks definitely sound looser than the Portland quintet have sounded since … ever, maybe. But “loose” is a step away from “lazy,” and despite a few minor standouts (the uptempo “Calamity Song” is the first Decemberists track in a while that I’ve wanted to play more than once, and “Rise To Me” is a decent country ballad) this is a pretty bland, safe collection of songs. Ironically, King is the band’s first-ever number one album on the U.S. Billboard charts, beating out Kidz Bop 19. (I’d insert a joke here, but it’s not necessary.) Maybe the Decemberists should change their majors from literature to economics.
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