When the Decemberists ended their two-year hiatus, the Portland, Oregon, quintet took a decidedly low-key route to recording the follow-up to 2011’s The King Is Dead.
“We just booked a studio for three days and ran through a few songs I’d been working on,” says Colin Meloy, the band’s lead singer and primary songwriter. “When those three days were up, we went our separate ways. There was never any talk of a record or touring.” They returned to the studio a few more times, booking longer stays each go-round until they realized they may, in fact, have an album.
The result is What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, a diverse, melodic collection of tunes. Though Meloy’s hyperliterate lyrics remain intact, unlike 2009’s rock opera, The Hazards of Love, or the atmospheric King, the band’s latest release highlights their sometimes overshadowed pop roots, beautifully realized on tunes such as “Cavalry Captain” and the first single, the bittersweet power pop ode “Make You Better”.
“That’s the mode that I’ve always felt I was working in, having cut my teeth on seventies power pop, or, if not that, people who were influenced by it,” Meloy says. He’s joined in the band by guitarist Chris Funk, keyboardist Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query, and drummer John Moen. And, while the Decemberists may have come a long way since their self-released EP of 2001, titled 5 Songs, the group is still known for their energetic live shows that have been known to re-enact sea battles or historic events to mirror their folklore-laden lyrics.
But the recording process for World ran counter to how the band cut its previous albums—by booking a studio for several weeks and resurfacing when time was up. “When you have limited time and resources, you make do with what you have,” Meloy says. “This one was wide open. We had the luxury of finishing every song to the degree that it could be finished.”
A prime influence on What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World was Leonard Cohen’s 1977 set, Death of a Ladies’ Man, produced by Phil Spector. “There’s an arch voice in it, a kind of almost adolescent tongue-in-cheek, and the arrangements are so over the top,” Meloy says. “It creates an amazing portrait of what a depraved person is.”
While the band was dormant, Meloy wrote the second and third installments of Wildwood Chronicles, the fantasy book series aimed at middle schoolers and illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis, as well as released Colin Meloy Sings The Kinks, the latest in his EP series of covers.
Much of the material on World comes from a first-person perspective, a switch-up for the band and a move that came, in part, because writing books temporarily satisfied Meloy’s need for penning third-person narratives. Plus, he finally felt he had something to write about. “For a long time, I felt like I was more interested in writing about other characters. I didn’t find my life so interesting.” he says. “Then I had kids and a family and there’s a lot more action.” The humorously heightened drama of folky dirge “Better Not Wake the Baby” is traceable to Meloy becoming a dad for the second time in 2013.
“It’s a scary song about being honest about what it’s like to be a parent,” he says. “It’s so consuming.” Other than “Baby”, Meloy cautions against taking the album too literally since he usually started with aspects of his own life and then generously sprinkled in embellishments, fantasy situations, and fictional characters. As Meloy and the band got deeper into the recording process, they moved back to their more familiar narrative style.
Even though The King Is Dead popped onto the Billboard 200 at No. 1 in the U.S.—a feat Meloy calls “rad”—he has joked in the past that the critically acclaimed band is like a “pet” for Capitol Records, given that its sales are modest compared to the superstars on the major label’s roster. He laughs at the remark now, but says he’s fine with unofficial mascot status. “For whatever reason, they’ve stuck by us and we appreciate it,” he says. “I don’t know how many bills we’re paying for them. We’re no Katy Perry, for sure.”