"The King is Dead," the sixth studio album from the Decemberists, an indie quintet out of Portland, Ore., is by far the band's most intuitive, not to mention commercially successful, release thus far.
Having debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the Decemberists have made remarkable strides in terms of sales. The band's previous album, 2009's "The Hazards of Love," peaked at No. 36 on the same chart. The Decemberists have clearly benefited from the recent indie and folk revival, led by the widespread successes of Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons, but this breakthrough is no fluke. "The King is Dead" is a musical masterpiece, as well as a marketable product; a truly rare hybrid.
The most striking feature of "The King is Dead" is the overtly indie-folk sound. Previous Decemberists albums have shown evidence of folk influences but have leaned more toward an alt-country and baroque-pop combination. This is first represented in the album's opening track, "Don't Carry It All." The first few measures, which feature a harmonica over an acoustic guitar, could be easily mistaken for the beginning of a Bob Dylan song. The rest of the song carries the folk influence.
Following is "Calamity Song," an upbeat folk tune. The instrumentation of the opening tracks is remarkable. From the brilliant use of a string section to the subtlety of the organ, "The King is Dead" is exponentially enhanced in a way that will remain in the subconscious of many listeners. A sign of true musicianship.
"Rox In The Box" retains the folk style, but creatively mixes it with some traditional bluegrass. This song shows off the sheer versatility of the Decemberists. With influences ranging from the Smiths to backwoods country, they have formed a unique sound.
"January Hymn" is musically very similar to "June Hymn," but the juxtaposition of the lyrics is immediately obvious. "January" tells the story of an especially painful failed relationship, while "June," presumably from the point of view of the same individual, speaks of the joy of a peaceful, simple life.
The lead single, "Down By The Water" displays the ubiquitous power of Colin Meloy's vocals, which dominate the track. Jenny Conlee's masterful use of the accordion gives the song an intriguing Gypsy feel.
"The King Is Dead" concludes with "Dear Avery," a beautifully haunting ballad. Bassist Nate Query inserts some brilliant runs in between the undeniably powerful lyrics. "Dear Avery" is the perfect culmination for "The King is Dead," which is a pure work of art.
The band has unquestionably surpassed expectations as well as its previous work, with "The King Is Dead." Despite the shift in overall sound (which is in no criticism), the Decemberists retain the literal poeticism of its lyrics and its rational skepticism toward love. There is a reason why a relatively underground folk group from Portland is sitting atop the Billboard 200 ahead of Eminem and Taylor Swift: originality and musicianship. The alternative-folk revival is in full swing, with the Decemberists leading the way.
Alex Eaton is a junior at Clarence High School.