In February 2011, The Decemberists' sixth studio album The King Is Dead debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 chart, crowning a familiar list of pop darlings including Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. It was a rare moment that saw a band that's never been afraid to be themselves (no matter how theatrical or nerdy that may be) be rewarded with mainstream success—and, leaving many to wonder how a quirky folk group from Portland would cope with that.
How indeed? After returning home from that album's tour, all five members took a step back and explored other creative pursuits. Lead singer Colin Meloy retreated to his farm south of Portland to work on Wildwood, a successful series of children's mildly dark fantasy novels he works on with his wife, while the rest of the band stayed busy with side projects, including local favorites Black Prairie and Eyelids. Perhaps most importantly, they allowed themselves to slow down, focus on raising families, and living as normal lives as possible.
"We all have other musical projects, but I think we've also just been sort of living," says guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk. "Just doing what one does as a normal Oregonian."
Once they did get back to work on the follow-up, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, they did so with a decidedly relaxed state of mind free of any unrealistic attempts to match previous commercial success.
"It took us a year and a half to make this record and we made it slowly over that year and a half," Funk explains. "It didn't feel like we were making a record all the time. It felt like we were just kind of going to the studio and hanging out." He adds, "We've never pressured ourselves to deliver much of anything except for a record that we like, but our headspace was really relaxed without a deadline in mind or anything like that. It was pretty chill."
What came out of those sessions was an upbeat set of songs that builds on the bright accessible nature of The King Is Dead, while incorporating bits and pieces from all over the group's catalog. Over sunny acoustic guitars, bouncy piano, and dramatic strings, Meloy's distinctive vocals take center stage and urge you to sing along. It's a warm, inviting record begging to be played around summer campfires and whatever else "normal Oregonians" do this time of year.
"I listen to this record and I can kind of hear every era of the Decemberists on it. Not to say it's like a 'Greatest Hits' or anything, but it points to all these different periods of the band where certain influences crept in," Funk notes. "A lot of it is just us being who we are as this amalgamation over the years and not really having a specific direction except just to play."
Fitting for an album with a title like What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, the lyrical themes range from cunnilingus to the Newtown massacre, and include insights into the conflicting emotions of balancing of the joys of fatherhood with the guilt of "bringing your children into a world that's unfit for children in some degree, through things like people walking into schools and massacring children," as Funk bluntly puts it.
While the mythology surrounding any group that crosses over to mainstream success tends to take on a life of its own, in the case of The Decemberists—it's all mostly true. They're not hiding anything.
"I think there's a stereotype of the band that we're theatrical and bookish—and I think those are pretty true. We have backgrounds in theater and everybody reads a lot. The 'Portland' stereotype fits too. So what would surprise people?" Funk chuckles, "Colin likes the Trailblazers now."
Longtime fans of the Portland quartet should be happy to see the group relatively untarnished by—but entirely grateful for—all of the exposure they've seen over the years.
"We don't really talk about it, but I think everyone's proud of our accomplishments as a group. It's an honor to do this and we don't take that lightly," says Funk. "Last weekend we played the Greek Theatre in Berkley in front of 9,000 people. It's just crazy to see the band still growing and that happening with the only effort being Colin writing good songs and us making sure they're recorded and served well. We're in a really fortunate position."