The Decemberists return: expect songs about Sandy Hook and fronting a boyband
After a hiatus, illness, and, for frontman Colin Meloy, three children’s books, the band are back with an eclectic album
The Decemberists: purveyors of bookish indie-rock, yet prone to fantastical lyrics, concept albums and rock operas
After conquering the indie world with 2010’s The King Is Dead, The Decemberists did exactly what any band building momentum probably shouldn’t do: they went on hiatus. Colin Meloy, their bespectacled frontman, had a plan: to finally write the children’s books that had been knocking around his head for more than a decade. The Wildwood Chronicles, comprising three volumes, were published in 2011, 2012 and 2014.
“I knew that if there was ever a time to do it, it was now,” he says from his home just south of Portland. “Especially since we’d been a band for 10 years and pretty much were consistently on the record- release-tour spin cycle. It was nice to step away from that and focus on other projects.”
When you are a band like The Decemberists – purveyors of bookish indie-rock, yet prone to fantastical lyrics and concept albums and rock operas – you can understand why fans never quite know what to expect when a new album is on the horizon. The quintet have just released their seventh, and What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World refuses to be categorised. There is a song about fronting a band and one that references the Sandy Hook tragedy, and the album’s lyrics are informed by both life and fantasy.
“It was kind of drawing from all over the place, really, because these songs were written over a four- or five-year period,” says Meloy. “Typically, our last few records have drawn from a year’s worth of writing, so you really kind of get only one feel sometimes; but on this one, there was a pretty wide spectrum.
“Initially there was some self-reflective songs, but as I was working on it, it seemed like I was living so much in another character’s world when I was writing the books that I found that the songs were more like first-person meditations.”
That doesn’t mean that there are songs about two kids stumbling upon a magical forest with talking animals, but taking time out from writing songs and focusing on other creative pursuits gave Meloy perspective.
“It made me kind of appreciate the ease of writing songs, but it also brought its own challenges. One thing that was nice was that, while I was working on the books, there was no built deadline or looming release date or recording date for the record, so I was free to kind of write the songs just for the sake of writing songs.”
The band’s hiatus came at a fortuitous time. The band’s accordionist/pianist Jenny Conlee had been diagnosed with breast cancer midway through the The King Is Dead tour, and the ordeal made the band focus on making another album.
“The break had already been pencilled in,” says Meloy. “But one thing I knew was that after we did all of these shows without her, that was something that would get me back to the idea of wanting to tour again; the idea of being able to do a proper tour with Jenny. It felt like we had to come back for that when she was better.”
The album opens with a strong statement of intent with The Singer Addresses His Audience, a track that amusingly acknowledges the ever-evolving nature of bands and their fans’ resistance to change.
“I thought it was funny to have it be the first thing you hear right out of the gate,” he says, chuckling. “In my head, it’s like the lead singer of a boyband or something, struggling with his coming-of-age, having only ever known celebrity,” he laughs. “But of course, it’s informed by my own experiences.”
It seems particularly apt, considering the widespread success the band had with the Americana-influenced The King Is Dead: number one in the US charts, Grammy nomination for best rock song. Suddenly, this little band from Portland was in the major league.
“I think The King Is Dead maybe came at the right time, coming out of a weird sort of record that people weren’t really sure what to make of,” the frontman says, referring to their fifth album, The Hazards of Love (the aforementioned rock opera). “So I think there was this built-up enthusiasm for a record that was maybe a little . . . easier to swallow. I think it stepped us up to a different level, but it all felt fairly comfortable. It was all surreal, but nothing to really distract from the project or the work at hand.”
He is quietly optimistic about how the album has been received to date, although not necessarily expecting, anticipating or focusing on it being another huge hit. For now, all concentration is on the European tour, which kicks off in Dublin on February 11th.
“There’ll be some nerves for sure. That’s the thing; we haven’t done a proper show on a tour yet. We’ve done some shows here and there during our break, but the beginning of a tour, new material that’s only been played in rehearsal? There’ll definitely be some nerves. Hopefully between that and the jetlag, it’ll be a good night.”
What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is out now. The Decemberists play Vicar Street on February 11th