The Decemberists' sixth, full-length studio outing finds the Portland, OR-based indie rock collective exploring a region that has thus far eluded them. Raised on a steady diet of Morrissey, Robyn Hitchcock, Shirley Collins, and Fairport Convention, The King Is Dead represents frontman Colin Meloy's first foray into the musical traditions of his homeland, or more specifically, it proves that he really, really likes R.E.M. “Calamity Song,” which is one of three tracks to feature guitar work from Peter Buck, threatens to break into “Pretty Persuasion” or "So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)" at any moment, and first single “Down by the Water” flirts with “The One I Love” hard enough to take it on a long weekend, though Meloy has stated that the track “started out as more of a paean to R.E.M. than I think any of us really wanted it to.” David Rawlings and Gillian Welch also join the party on a number of tracks, lending their instantly recognizable voices to two of the album’s finest moments, the Wildflowers-era, Tom Petty-inspired “Don’t Carry It All” and the lovely, Paul Simon-esque “June Hymn” -- Meloy and Welch, the former a Montana-born Anglophile and the latter a California girl with a fetish for dust bowl Appalachia -- harmonize nicely, canceling out each other’s vocal affectations. It’s by far the clearest and most commercial collection of tunes the band has amassed to date, but it’s also the least interesting. It may sound like a cross between Camper Van Beethoven's Key Lime Pie and R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, but none of the tracks have the gravitas or potential staying power of a song like “Sweethearts” (CVP) or “Find the River” (R.E.M.). That said, it’s a refreshing change from the usual compilation of bibliophile, sea shanty/murder ballad, and while the Led Zeppelin III-style rural overhauling may isolate fans who prefer the serpentine, progressive art rock of albums like The Crane Wife and Hazards of Love, it opens up a whole new continent for the band to explore.
AllMusic Review by James Christopher Monger