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Album review: The Decemberists' 'The King Is Dead'

January 18, 2011 |  7:01 am

Decemberists_240 On “The Hazards of Love,” the 2009 album from the Decemberists, frontman Colin Meloy and his merry band of Pacific Northwest hucksters created a medieval rock opera. The band’s latest album, “The King Is Dead,” takes the opposite tack, exploring Americana, a much more simple, rustic format.

Problem is, you can take the man out of the opera but you can’t take the opera out of the man. Too much of “The King Is Dead” sounds like the showy wunderkind in theater class earnestly laboring through an Arthur Miller monologue when all he wants to do is stand up and trill at the top of his lungs.

“The King Is Dead” clings so closely to formula that it doesn’t sound like homage or even truth; it sounds like the studious but unconvincing work of an extremely gifted mimic. The right players are on the stage with Meloy — R.E.M.’s Peter Buck contributes guitar and mandolin, and Gillian Welch provides vocals that go a long way in establishing some measure of restraint here — but the songwriting never heads in a direction that can’t be predicted from the outset, a choice brave enough to inch the genre a little further along or afield.

One of the tracks that Buck contributes to, “Calamity Song,” is designed as a tribute to R.E.M., so much so that it almost steals the riff from “Talk About the Passion” note for note. Buck’s cooperation with such a stunt would seemingly remove possibility for a copyright lawsuit, but it only underscores what’s missing on the album — the shadowy, idiosyncratic depths of Americana that R.E.M.’s classic debut, “Murmur,” captured so brilliantly.

—Margaret Wappler

The Decemberists
“The King Is Dead”
Two stars (Out of four)