In the annals of rock criticism it is decreed: "No band shall make three concept albums in a row and still expect a good review". Following 2006's The Crane Wife, which reworked a Japanese folktale about a man who unwittingly weds a bird, and 2009's baffling mediaeval rock opera, The Hazards of Love, The Decemberists were edging dangerously close to their third strike with the release of The King Is Dead.
Fortunately, the Oregon group's larger-than-life frontman and songwriter Colin Meloy also seems to have grown tired of the grand narrative arcs that once so preoccupied him. He has admitted in interviews to abandoning some of his more esoteric, academic tendencies in favour of the music that first inspired him to play.
But The King Is Dead does not hark back to the energetic and sometimes abrasive sound that helped make the group a mainstream concern with 2005's Picaresque, either. Instead, the five-piece has crafted a record of spectacularly beautiful folk rock, awash with vigorous strings and loose harmonies, that owes a debt to the British and American folk revivalists of the 1960s. The baroque touches of Picaresque seem like a distant memory, but Meloy's wickedly lucid storytelling remains.
The opener Don't Carry It All couldn't be more straightforward. The pastoral scene is set with a flourish of harmonica reminiscent of Neil Young's Harvest, before telling a beautifully meandering tale about obliging woodsmen offering to share their burdens. Warm and life-affirming, the song is a glorious statement of the group's chosen direction. Meanwhile, the thumping Calamity Song exposes another of Meloy's biggest influences - REM - with its hard and fast-paced riff. It's more than a passing tribute, though: three of the tracks on The King Is Dead feature the Georgia group's guitarist, Peter Buck.
On their sixth album, it feels like The Decemberists have finally found the perfect uses for the vintage organs, violins and other instruments that littered its predecessors. The LP contains some of the most delicate ballads of the group's career, such as the weary June Hymn and ode to the open country, Rise to Me. The bluegrassy-toned Rox in the Box also shows the group breaking new sonic ground, but with Meloy singing a Wild West warning - "if you ever make it to 10, you won't make it again" - it feels closer to the short-story narrative tone of Picaresque.
Evidence of the band's rockier roots can also be heard on the ironically titled This Is Why We Fight, a sorrowful ode to those who lose their lives in the name of patriotism.
That The Decemberists are capable of crafting grandiose tunes and brilliantly realised stories has never been in doubt, but across the 40 minutes and 10 tracks of The King Is Dead, they have provided the most beautiful and engaging music of their career. When you can do that, who needs a concept?