One has to wonder – did somebody tell The Decemberists that they’d gone off the deep end, or was it a conclusion they reached themselves? Their last album was 2008’s “The Hazards of Love”, and it was a long-form rock opera filled to the brim with shape-shifting characters and a plotline so confusing that frontman Colin Meloy seemed to have a tough time explaining it. Even the record before that, “The Crane Wife”, was largely a storytelling affair taken from an old Japanese folk tale surrounding a crane that turns into a woman. If, upon reading this, it all sounds quite preposterous, that’s because it is. That, and epically pretentious when placed amid Meloy’s florid and ten-dollar-word lyrics. Despite this, the music continued to be decent, if not somewhat excellent, which in turn is probably what saved the band from becoming outcasts by much of their highly loyal fan base. What built that fan base in the first place almost exclusively came from the band’s first three records, which largely consisted of sharply written and concise but instrumentally dense pop songs. There were characters even back then, tales of chimney sweeps, gymnasts, ballerinas, thieves and sailors, but they were all confined to their own songs rather than an entire album. So whether or not there was an intervention or perhaps even some pressure from their record label, The Decemberists are back with a new record, and this time they’re going old school. The band took in a steady diet of R.E.M., moved onto a farm, and brought in legendary singer-songwriter-pinup Gillian Welch for an assist. Oh yeah, and R.E.M.’s own Peter Buck dropped by to provide some additional inspiration as well. The final product is “The King Is Dead”, out next week and showcasing a leaner, cleaner and outright different version of The Decemberists than we’ve seen in quite some time.

The very first thing you hear on “Don’t Carry It All”, the opening track on “The King Is Dead”, is a harmonica. To my knowledge, The Decemberists have never used harmonica before, and it throws you off balance almost immediately. That plus an acoustic guitar and it’s like a quick trip back to Neil Young’s “Harvest” days. The gently sawing fiddles and some vocal harmonies push an alt-country/Americana vibe that much more, but yes, with Peter Buck playing on the song there’s a little bit of R.E.M. sound in there too. Buck’s acoustic guitar work is a whole lot more distinctive on “Calamity Song”, a track that would be perfectly at home on a record like “Fables of the Reconstruction” were you to hand over the vocals to Michael Stipe. To put it another way, The Decemberists sounding like classic R.E.M. is by no means a bad thing. Some piano, more acoustic guitar/harmonica and the country staple slide guitar pop up for the ballad “Rise to Me”, which is eerily reminiscent of late 60s/early 70s material from The Band. By this point, it’s pretty obvious that not only have The Decemberists vastly changed their style from their last two albums, but have also provided a healthy variation on their earliest, more poppy fare. Granted, a nearly solo acoustic ballad such as “January Hymn” comes across like a less wordy version of “Red Right Ankle”, but the distinctly Americana angle at which the band is approaching their new material is surprisingly refreshing. Peter Buck makes one last appearance on first single “Down By the Water”, which bears a sonic resemblance in many respects to R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”, albeit with a lot more harmonica and strong backing vocals courtesy of Gillian Welch. Speaking of Welch though, she does backing vocals on seven of the album’s ten tracks and in turn provides her own interesting twist to everything she touches. Case in point, “All Arise!” definitely sounds more like a Welch song than a Decemberists song as the fiddles, banjos and Old West-style piano sound like they’d be right at home amid a barndance. “This Is Why We Fight” is probably the closest the band comes to sounding like their old selves, in a good way. Chris Funk is back tearing up the electric guitar, and there’s a certain brash, almost anthemic feel to the song; an energized call to arms that was missing up until that point. It only figures then that the album ends on the very next track, “Dear Avery”. Thankfully it continues the long-standing Decemberists tradition of ending strong, in this case with a gorgeous acoustic ballad that holds strong ties to Fleetwood Mac. Just the acoustic guitar and organ would have been good enough to call the track a success, and you could take or leave the slide guitar, but it’s the rich harmonies that go even further beyond just Welch’s voice that bring out the song’s best qualities. It comes across like a fitting coda to a record that seems to hold surprises at each and every turn.

There are some issues with “The King Is Dead”. First and foremost among them is Colin Meloy’s dumbed-down wordplay. It’s annoying when he uses too many words that require a dictionary to understand, but that’s also part of what makes his writing so distinctive. If he can keep the challenging vocabulary to a happy medium level where he doesn’t go overboard with it, more power to him. Meloy still throws out a few magniloquent words when he’s feeling up to it, as “loam” and “conjure” and “culverts”, but ultimately there’s a paucity of them. Saying “On a winter Sunday, I go/to clear away the snow/and green the ground below” is pleasant but seems like anybody could have written it. On the plus side though, that provides more of an opportunity to focus more on how the songs are arranged and also calls to attention Meloy’s vocal performance, which is stronger than ever, perhaps to prove his mettle in face-offs versus Gillian Welch. On the instrumental side, the alt-country/Americana genre has been around for a long time now, and similar to the lyrics it’s tough to make an impact unless your songs are really special. The Decemberists prove they’re up for such a challenge with this record, but just barely miss their ultimate goal. To put it another way, such a valiant effort makes “The King Is Dead” a very, very good album that wants to be great. Still, it’s a huge step back upwards and forwards for the band, both reviving the strength and good will they earned on their pre-“Crane Wife” albums while also trying to expand their sound to new areas. It may not be the best thing they’ve ever done, but it’s close. At this point, close equals highly satisfying. More than anything though, it just feels great to have The Decemberists back on the right track, whatever track that might be.

Stream the entire album at NPR (limited time only)

Preorder “The King Is Dead” from Amazon