NEVER HAS A BAND faced such scorn for its ambition like the Decemberists did for 2009's turgid rock opera, The Hazards of Love. Their determined song cycle put the story before the music, and its confusing plotline (with its forest creatures, fauns, and fairies, Hazards might as well have come pre-packaged with 12-sided dice and a wizard's cloak) distracted from both the band's melodic craft and frontman Colin Meloy's penchant for creating lyrics that have left many a weak-kneed listener and dog-eared thesaurus in their wake.
"Hazards had a lot of rules, and it was going to have a narrative, but also I was writing the songs in order, so that the last chord of the song would then be the first chord of the next song. It was an academic, overly cerebral puzzle for myself, just to make it interesting," explains Colin Meloy from the couch of his Portland home. No longer interested in explaining the complex narratives of Hazards, or its linear predecessor The Crane Wife, Meloy longed to create an album where his songs stood alone. As he explains, "That was definitely the intention, to do something with a little more economy than our previous outings."
Exhausted from tour and burdened by the albatross of Hazards, the Decemberists fulfilled a longtime promise for album number six, The King Is Dead—to make a record in the least complicated manner possible. "After every record we were like, 'Next one we're just gonna do in two weeks in a barn.' It was sort of a euphemism, but then it became a real thing." This get-back-to-the-roots-at-all-costs approach led the band down SE Foster Road, through a rural swath of Happy Valley, and finally, into a barn at Pendarvis Farm.
The site of the annual Pickathon festival, Pendarvis Farm is no stranger to the co-mingling of music and horses, nor was it new to Meloy, who was hitched to longtime partner (and illustrator for the band) Carson Ellis on its very soil a few years back. With the grandiose shadow of Hazards still engulfing the Decemberists, the plan was to settle in the barn at Pendarvis, record during the day, camp at night, and return to a simpler time for the band.
It worked on a grand scale. The radiant warmth of King's opening number "Don't Carry it All" sounds lovingly culled from Tom Petty's Wildflowers, and this secure sense of familiarity continues throughout the Tucker Martine-produced recording. In addition to their normal lineup—Meloy, Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, and John Moen—Gillian Welch assumed the role of honorable Decemberite, lending her crisp twang to seven of the album's 10 tracks, most notably the gorgeous, barren ballad "January Hymn." Peter Buck stopped by as well, which is fitting since the band's "Calamity Song" is the mirror image of R.E.M.'s "(Don't Go Back to) Rockville."
Concise and comforting, The King Is Dead is a remarkable collection of songs whose only flaws are minor; its relatively short running time (a hair over the 40-minute mark) might not leave listeners satiated, plus the Seuss-ian rhyme structure of kiddie anthem "Rox in the Box" ultimately feels more expendable than the band's recent contribution ("The Great Outdoors") to beloved children's—and stoners'—program Yo Gabba Gabba!
While the rustic escapism that came with retreating to Pendarvis is surely romantic in retrospect, the band was left to face the damp realism of spending springtime in Oregon among the unforgiving elements. "It just rained on us. It was so cold and there was no heat in the barn." explains Meloy. "Everybody had their Wellies by the door, because if you had to go take a piss you had to go put your Wellies on and trudge through the horse piss and mud to get to the outhouse."
Bucolic hardships aside, the unassuming nature of The King Is Dead resonated with listeners in a way that the band's previous catalog never quite could. The record sold over 93,000 copies in its opening week, propelling the band to an unlikely position atop the Billboard charts (the runner-up that week, Kidz Bop 19, was out-sold by over 23,000 albums). The first locally formed band to claim the top album in the nation, the Decemberists avoided the creative lull that often accompanies a band in their 10th year, instead sharing their finest work to date with an expansive audience far larger than anyone imagined.
While the natural progression of the Decemberists might have artistically strayed over the past decade—from their wide-eyed admiration of British folk to their dalliances in weighty prog rock—The King Is Dead suits them best. It's a recording loyal to their finest qualities and true to the ragged ethos of the past influences that they hold so dear. Evidence of this could be found pinned to a wooden pillar in their makeshift recording studio. It was there that the band erected an altar of sorts around the iconic barn photo from Neil Young's Harvest. "I think Tucker put that up there," says Meloy. "We were just trying to keep our eyes on the prize."