BY JEFF ELBEL | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
Following the long hours spent supporting the breakout success of the Decemberists’ 2011 album “The King is Dead,” the Portland, Oregon-based folk-pop heroes announced a lengthy break to begin in 2012. It didn’t seem like anyone in the group took it easy.
Frontman Colin Meloy remained particularly busy. He returned to Chicago the following year on his own for a packed house at Park West, bringing a new EP of Kinks covers. Meloy also released two children’s fantasy novels in his “Wildwood Chronicles” series, intricately illustrated by his artist wife Carson Ellis.
After reconvening in 2014 to perform and record, the Decemberists visit the Chicago Theatre this week. The band brings a new batch of literate character sketches and perceptive personal thoughts that illuminate Meloy’s affinity for Ray Davies’ observational pop. Like “The King is Dead,” the band’s new album “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” avoids the type of scholarly narratives found on preceding efforts “The Crane Wife” or “The Hazards of Love.”
Instead, the heartfelt set finds Meloy looking inward on songs like “12/17/12.” That date marked President Obama’s address following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.
“I watched that speech and was profoundly moved,” says Meloy. “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.”
The album also aims directly for reconnection to the band’s audience. “We know we belong to you,” sings Meloy during “The Singer Addresses His Audience.” The song works as a request to be forgiven for time away, and for not remaining the same indie-rock darlings that enraptured early fans at the turn of the century. “We had to change,” sings Meloy.
“Make You Better” finds the band’s musical personality intact but evolved, leaning heavily upon the steady warmth of Jenny Conlee’s piano. “We’re not so starry-eyed anymore,” sings Meloy, sounding somewhat worn by the years but still faithful.
The “Wildwood” series has allowed Meloy the freedom to pursue this confessional style of songwriting with the Decemberists.
“Writing books as this raw, fantastic narrator has been the outlet for that part of my brain,” says Meloy. “Having a family, having kids, having this career, getting older — all of these things have made me look more inward. So some of these songs are among the more intimately personal songs I’ve ever written.”