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Back on the Road

In 2011, folk-rock ensemble The Decemberists hit a new pinnacle when the group’s album, “The King is Dead,” debuted at No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s album chart. The band went on tour as “The King is Dead” racked up sales and impressive reviews. Then in 2012, the group did something it hadn’t done in a career that stretched back a dozen years — the members took an extended break.

“It was definitely a moment to get away from things and just, yeah, it just seemed like it was time,” guitarist Chris Funk says of the decision to put the Portland band on pause. “It was time to break off and do other stuff, for sure.”

And other stuff the five band members did. Colin Meloy, the Decemberists’ lead singer, songwriter and best known band member, kept the lowest profile — at least as far as music was concerned. During the break, he focused on writing the third installment in his series of “Wildwood Chronicles” illustrated fantasy adventure novels, “Wildwood Imperium.”  

Meloy also wrote songs for what eventually became The Decemberists' new album “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” during the hiatus.

The other members of The Decemberists — Funk, keyboard and accordion player Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query and drummer John Moen — wasted little time returning to musical pursuits. Along with violinist Annalisa Tornfelt and guitarist Jon Neufeld, they reactivated their rootsy bluegrass informed side project Black Prairie.

Black Prairie released three albums: "A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart" (2012), "Wild Ones" (2013) and "Fortune" (2014), considerably raising the profile of the band in the process.

The roadwork also helped the four members of the Decemberists maintain their chops for the time when the band would reconvene. 

“Four years is a long break had we not played music with each other,” Funk says. “So I think it benefited the band and the recording process for the new album in the sense that we were just already up and running, the whole band working together.”

When it was time for The Decemberists to end its hiatus, the band didn’t rush into “What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World.” Work on the album stretched out for a year and a half as the group recorded and refined the 18 songs Meloy had amassed.

Funk says the extensive schedule for the studio work was a nice change from the shorter, more frenetic recording sessions that had produced earlier Decemberists albums.

“I think the 18 months were just a way to ease back into it,” Funk says. "Not just going into the studio and having this full-on recording happening.”

The work that went into “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” paid off. It’s one of the strongest albums in a catalog populated by six other acclaimed — and frequently ambitious — albums.

Where “The King is Dead” was frequently stripped back and leaned more toward folk, the new album is being described by some as The Decemberists’ “big pop” album. That description fits certain songs, such as “Philomena,” with its Beach Boys-esque “ooh-wah” vocals, pretty string lines and youthful lyrical setting, “Make You Better” — a single that has reached No. 1 on a Triple A Radio chart and features a hooky classic pop melody — and “Cavalry Captain” augmented by buoyant horns.

The band’s folk roots are well represented as well in tunes such as “12/17/12” — inspired by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting — “Lake Song” and “Carolina Low.”

Fans can expect to hear songs from across The Decemberists' career during its concerts this summer.  

“I think it’s a pretty healthy retrospective on everything mixed in with the new material that we’re excited to play,” Funk says. “We are conscious of the fact that we have fans that have been with us since day one, so we’re trying to play music they want to hear, but also be conscious that likely we have a lot of fans that signed on with ‘The King Is Dead.’

“But yeah, we try to make it fun for us, too. Whether or not people have heard the songs all the time, we’re not a band fully driven by hits, either. We have a catalog of music and a fan base that was created out of touring a lot. So we can get away with choosing a set list that we think is exciting.”

Folk-rock band The Decemberists are back on the road with a new album and a July 14 show at Britt Festivals in Jacksonville. Photo courtesy of Britt Festivals