The indie folk favorites take their time to create a compelling new album

It’s been four years since the Decemberists’ sixth studio album, The King Is Dead, shot to the top of the Billboard 200 chart. Finally, the Portland, Oregon-based folk-rock band—frontman Colin Meloy, guitarist Chris Funk, keyboardist Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query and drummer John Moen—follows up with What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. Working with producer Tucker Martine, who’s helmed a half-dozen projects for the band, Meloy spins some compelling tales on the new record, including “The Singer Addresses His Audience.” It’s not personal, says Meloy, but “12/17/12”—a song marking the date and tragedy of the Newtown massacre—most certainly is.

Why so much time between albums?

We had never afforded ourselves this amount of time before. Like a lot of musicians, normally you have a collection of songs and pick out five weeks in a studio and just do it—and the record cycle continues. But there’s something fulfilling about booking studio time when there’s no expectation of finishing an album right then. Especially because we’d never done it that way before.

Was it less stressful?

I’m not saying the usual way we work is bad—in fact, I prefer it in some respects. There’s something about having time constraints that aids the process. This was really an arduous process. Having it open-ended, you don’t see immediate results. It’s a more meditative process, so it’s also slower. There are merits to both ways of working.

Did you have some songs ready?

There was probably a year and a half between parting ways on The King Is Dead record and beginning this one. In between, I was working on the Wildwood [children’s] books, but I was also writing songs. I can’t not write songs. It’s so much a part of what I do, and has been since I was a kid. That was happening all along, so by the time we did get together there was a handful of songs we could try out.

Why work with Tucker again?

We’ve been working with him for a long time now. We’ve developed a great rapport. He understands our aesthetic, and we’ve gotten to know how he works. So we can be a lot more intuitive working together. His involvement with this record was the closest we’ve come to having a sixth Decemberist.

How did you know when it was done?

We got to a point where we had enough good songs, and there were several permutations of how the record could exist. We could have kept doing that, but at some point you have to realize, “Oh, we are making a record—and a record has a beginning, a middle and an end. And the beginning and the end shouldn’t be too far apart.”

Was “12/17/12” hard to write?

No, it was very easy to write—it came out very quickly. It’s a very simple meditation, and it was a relief to write it. It was some kind of outlet at a time when, like most people, I felt helpless.

Why take the song’s line “what a terrible world, what a beautiful world” for the album title?

As we were putting the songs together, it occurred to me that it was a good view of the record, and also how I viewed the world. It was written two years ago, but I think it makes as much sense, if not more sense, now.

–Linda Laban

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