This is the first single from American folk rock band The Decemberists' sixth album, The King Is Dead. The song features R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, who contributes 12-string guitar and singer-songwriter Gillian Welch, who provides vocal harmonies. Frontman Colin Meloy said to Rolling Stone of Buck's participation: "It was really cool. Even playing those simple parts, he's a master."
Even before Buck's contribution, the song was heavily influenced by R.E.M. Frontman Colin Meloy told Rolling Stone it, "started out as more of a paean to R.E.M. than I think any of us really wanted it to be. "The band played around with the song to make it sound a bit less like the Athens' band's 1984 album Reckoning before Buck joined the party.
The song features a harmonica intro played by Meloy. It was the first time the Decemberists frontman had picked up the instrument in years. "I thought it'd be fun to try again," he told Spin magazine. "Adding a harmonica — it has a rank-and-file sort of 80's cow-punk thing to it. That was a nice color to add."
The King is Dead was recorded in a barn near Pendarvis Farm on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, where Meloy got married. However, the reality proved far more difficult than what the band envisaged when planning the project. Said Meloy during a session at New York's WFUV Studio: "It rained on us a lot. It was a very rainy May, with no heat or indoor plumbing. It wasn't luxurious in any sense."
The King is Dead found Meloy taking a simpler, more stripped-down songwriting approach compared with the band's previous two records, The Hazards of Love and The Crane Wife. "For this record, I was just kind of letting the songs come naturally," Meloy told Billboard magazine. "It was my interest, having gone through a phase of feeling like each song could open up into another song, which made for these longer, multiple-part songs. I think I'm sort of over that for the time being. I'm just really enjoying kind of concise, 3-4 minute songs like I did in the early days of The Decemberists."
The band wanted The King is Dead to draw on the country-rock records of the '60s and '70s - hence Gillian Welch's involvement on the record. "I felt that one of my favorite parts of those records was that often there would be a male and female voice," Meloy UK newspaper The Guardian. "Like Neil Young's Comes a Time with Nicolette Larson, where they're both really hot in the mix, so you can really hear the character of her voice. And that's coming from a tradition – I think they were both really big fans of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and they in turn were drawing from Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, and they were drawing on George Jones and Tammy Wynette… And that's what I think we wanted to try to get. But we needed somebody whose voice could stand up to my famous donkey bray." Meloy added with a modest grin. "And Gillian's voice has enough character to stick out."
The King is Dead was The Decemberists' first-ever #1 album on the Billboard 200. The chart-topping record sold a career-high 94,000 sold in its first week. The large sales figures were partly due to Amazon MP3's offering of it on January 18, 2011 as its $3.99 daily deal.