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The Decemberists: The King Is Dead (Capitol) 

With a title that works as a coy Smiths reference, the Decemberists are back with their first record since 2009's Jethro Tull-ish rock opera The Hazards of Love, and they've smartly dialed back the theatricality and ambition in order to give us a delicate song cycle that's more woodsy than garish. The King Is Dead uses folk, roots rock and West Coast country as its signifiers; it's a front-porch record from a wainscoting kind of band.

Mostly, it works. The Decemberists have always been pastoral, though medieval. The King Is Dead is full of yearning to leave behind anachronisms and instead enter a timeless, epic space. Country-folk's the perfect medium, distinctly American and evoking the past without being mired in it. It's Edmund Spenser re-imagined by Woody Guthrie.

But parts of the album sound weirdly square. "Down by the Water," despite Colin Meloy's familiar lilt, sounds way too Bonnie Raitt: middle-aged, fangless and sedate. "This Is Why We Fight" marks the moment when the band becomes an adult contemporary act.

Some might argue the Decemberists have always been square and fuddy-duddyish, but no; even "Eli, the Barrow Boy," on 2005's Picaresque—the band at its most baroque—is melancholic and jagged in fascinating ways. The King Is Dead winds up being their tamest and most conventional record, but it still crackles with loveliness throughout: Witness the first time the chorus kicks in on "Rise to Me," and Meloy swallowing the words "Springville Hill" on "June Hymn."

More by Sean Bottai

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