Bold Americana underlay polishes new release from hyper-literate indie band

If every prior Decemberists album were a novella, then consider “The King is Dead” a folk tale – less bookish and more accessible, but in every way as rich a story.

The band’s latest album, released Tuesday, is a Decemberists album for people who didn’t think they’d like The Decemberists. Known for its well-crafted but somewhat lofty lyrics – often drawing from literary themes, like 2006’s “The Crane Wife,” which rooted in a traditional Japanese story and William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” – the band has the unfortunate reputation of being a little too haughty to listeners without a Ph.D. in English.

That’s not, by any means, a reflection of the band’s talent. Front man Colin Meloy can hew a heartbreakingly gorgeous acoustic ballad that can prick open anyone’s cold heart (skeptics, please download “Red Right Ankle” from 2009’s “Her Majesty,” pronto).

To the casual consumer, though, the band’s usual brand of baroque pop – however excellent – can be a bit too piquant to dine on daily.But The Decemberists’ latest release shatters all those critical jabs.

Meloy reported in Rolling Stone that the band recorded it in a barn at the 80-acre Pendarvis Farm in rural Oregon – how much more grounded can a band get?

On “The King is Dead,” Meloy and the gang wander away from their standard literary focus and purposefully mosey into the rich soil of Americana – including a guest appearance from the “Red Dirt Girl” herself, Gillian Welch, in “Down by the Water.”

Welch attaches her earthy harmonies to Meloy’s trademark nasal tenor on the album’s first single, and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck also joins in on the hootenanny of a track.

In all its lyrical solemnity – “But I would bear it all broken just to fill my cup/Down by the water, down by the old main drag” – Down by the Water’s perfect blend of driving snare drum and beguiling harmonica lick renders this single indubitably catchy.

“January Hymn,” a lovestruck sigh of crystallized winter breath, feels like hearing an unwelcome goodbye and then trying to fall asleep alone on chilly sheets.

“This is Why We Fight” may be less loquacious than the usual Decemberists tune, but it has all the burn of a harsh shot of Maker’s Mark – and the alternating bilious (“Bride of quiet/Bride of hell”) and yearning (“Come to me now/Lay your arms around me”) motives that would spur one to finish the whole damn bottle.

It has A-list alt-country guest artists. It has rustic pedal steel. Heck, it has soul.

“The King is Dead” is a bold artistic plunge into a folksy swimming hole for The Decemberists, who – even with the genre change – maintain their reign among indie rock’s best wordsmiths.

ABBY BADACH

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