BY ADAM MCGRATH

PHOTOGRAPHY BY AUTUMN DE WILDE

Fans of folk rock band The Decemberists understand that the five-piece ensemble from Portland, Oregon has always been a vehicle for the particular historical fancies of songwriter and vocalist Colin Meloy. With album concepts and song titles that could populate the syllabus of a graduate-level history course, The Decemberists have authored a musical catalogue full of whimsy and verve. What may pass by unnoticed, then, is that Meloy has begun to write from a more autobiographical viewpoint as of late, commenting on modern events instead of conflicts centuries past.

On What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (January 20, Capitol Records), the most evident example of Meloy’s trend toward the personal is in the track that gives the album its name, “12/17/12”. The date refers to President Obama’s address to the nation following the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Meloy said of that speech and this song: “I was hit by a sense of helplessness, but also the message of ‘Hold your family close,’ and this was my way of marking that for myself.”

It makes sense that Meloy is exploring these kinds of sentiments, as becoming a family man naturally prompts one to be more introspective. It’s a powerful concept―the beauty of our world must coexist side-by-side with the terrible things people do to each other, and is all the more special because of it.

Not all of Meloy’s self-awareness is so heavy, though. On album opener “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, Meloy breaks through the fourth wall and talks to his fans directly while cheekily referencing incidents involving hairdo-copying and unfortunate product placement.

This willingness to laugh at itself served the band well as its members enjoyed a three-year hiatus in between albums. Coming off a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Song for 2011’s “Down By The Water”, The Decemberists didn’t just wander off; the group released two EPs, a live album, and a track for the Hunger Games soundtrack. Their popularity even allowed them the ultimate cultural honor—being immortalized as characters on The Simpsons! The band appeared as music teachers in a hipster-fied episode of the iconic animated sitcom. Add to that a live performance on the season six finale of Parks and Recreation, and it’s no wonder the band took their time getting back in the studio.

Recorded over 15 months, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World benefits greatly from the leisurely pace of its creation. Free from a tightly wound narrative or concept, the album has the most peaks and valleys of any Decemberists album to date, rising and falling through each section, allowing for nuanced dynamics and layered songwriting.

Guitarist Chris Funk speaks about recording the new album. “The lunches were exceptionally well digested,” jokes the multi-instrumentalist, who has produced records for Langhorne Slim and Rhet Miller along with other side projects.

Regarding the creative process, Funk says, “When making a record or writing songs, I think you just get into a creative space and aren’t really thinking about the shape of a record.”

Part of The Decemberists’ signature sound comes from the use of lesser-known stringed instruments such as the bouzouki. First appearing on the 2006 album The Crane’s Wife, the bouzouki has Greek origins, but has also been adapted for Irish folk music since the 1960s.

“The bouzouki is used as a songwriting tool,” Funk explains, as he and Meloy both play the instrument. “It gets you out of the familiar of the guitar. Has a cool ring to it that sits differently in a mix.”

It’s a bit of trial and error to see which instrument works best on a song, as mandolin, banjo and bouzouki all complement the guitar and other instruments in different ways. The creative blending of instruments helps achieve the band’s signature sound, whether they’re channeling classic American folk or hearkening back to European minstrelsy.

While What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World does feature some of Meloy’s most personal songwriting as well as moments of fun self-reference, the engaging narrative style that has characterized Meloy’s songwriting since the beginning is still in full effect on this album. Songs like “Calvary Captain” and “Philomena” see Meloy taking on different narrative perspectives, evoking simple images of sea and land, man and woman. These pastoral images have long been the cornerstone of Meloy’s oeuvre, and it would not be unfair to categorize him as a writer first and musician second. The recent success of the children’s book series Wildwood, written by Meloy and illustrated by his wife Carson Ellis, would seem to prove this point.

That is not to say that the musicianship on this album is not top notch. The addition of violins and cellos give tracks like “The Singer Addresses His Audience” additional gravitas and focus, while lush backing vocals make songs like “Make You Better” pop out of the speaker and stick in your head. Occasional guitar reverb, sustained organ chords, or subtle harmonica give each song its own personality.

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is The Decemberists most balanced album to date, with equal attention given to narrative perspective, musical arrangements, and overall mood. Whether you know exactly which “I” is singing a given song, Meloy’s pleasant twang deftly soars all the same. And while their albums are truly pieces of art, The Decemberists are also known for their spectacular live shows. They will play the Academy of Music on April 7th.