Fans of the Decemberists have come to expect the unexpected. Whether the Oregon quintet are releasing an epic 18-and-a-half-minute single based on an old Irish myth, (2004's The Tain) or putting out a prog-folk concept album about a woman who falls for a shape-shifting creature (2009's The Hazards of Love) their eclectic and eccentric output has always kept their followers on their toes.
But for their most recent album, The King is Dead, they did perhaps the most surprising thing of all. They offered ten simple, succinct, stripped-back alt-country tunes. Where they have previously embraced grandiose storytelling, here the pastoral beauty of their home and some of the characters that have inhabited it are their point of focus. Quite deservedly, it has won them some of the best reviews of their career, with both critics and fans falling over themselves to praise this seemingly humble addition to their oeuvre.
"I think I sort of reached the end of a kind of mode," frontman and songwriter Colin Meloy tells me. "I was ready to try something new. You never want to make the same record twice, obviously, or at least we didn't this time round. I felt like we could have kept going in that direction and kept making broader and more expansive conceptual things but I felt like it was a good time to retract."
However, Meloy insists that, at the heart of it, it is still a classic Decemberists record. "I figure that if we had won any fans from our last album, or the one prior to that, there was the potential of maybe having them be a little nonplussed for this one, but I knew that for anybody who had been listening to us for a while, and knew what we did, then this record wouldn't seem that out of place. I think it tends to be seen as out of place just because of how different it is from the previous record, but barring that it feels pretty comfortable to me."
In part it was inspired by 36-year-old Meloy's relocation, with his wife and young son, to a rural spot outside of Portland, Oregon.
The mountains, rivers and seasons are so vividly and emotively described on the album that it becomes a sort of celebration of the land, in the grand American tradition, as rural and emotional isolation permeates some of the more meditative tracks.
"However Anglophile we've been on the past few records, there is a vein of Americana running through what we do and it just kind of came to the forefront with this record," explains Meloy. "I think getting away from town a little bit influenced my thinking. Just getting to learn the law of the land and watching how the seasons change that area affected a lot of the songwriting. It was kind of weighing heavily on my mind and made its way into the songs." This perhaps can be seen most explicitly in the exquisite "January Hymn" and "June Hymn", which detail this changing of time. Elsewhere you'll find more up-tempo country-rock detailing everything from Montanan miners ("Rox in the Box") to an unfulfilling small-town adolescence ("Down by the Water".)
It's the sort of record that Meloy and the band, comprised of Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query and John Moen, had wanted to make for a while: a "barn record" that recalled the homespun sound of albums such as Neil Young's Harvest. "After six or seven years of just getting bigger, using more instruments and getting more expansive with ideas," Meloy says, "we were exhausted by the process and we would be like, 'alright, next record, we're just going to do it in a barn, in two weeks, and that will be it'." Taking over a converted barn on Pendarvis Farm, an 80-acre estate of meadows, forest and mountain views just outside Portland, the band recorded the album there in the day and camped there at night – at least when the ferociously cold and wet weather permitted.
As well as being inspired by playing at the Newport Folk Festival with Pete Seeger, and realising the importance of the American folk revival, Meloy wanted to focus on a lot of the music he had grown up listening to, including The Replacements, Camper Van Beethoven and, crucially, REM. He even managed to convince REM's guitarist, Peter Buck, to play on some of the tracks.
"Peter's a guy around town so we had crossed paths many times," explains Meloy. "I mentioned to him that I was kind of writing fake Peter Buck riffs for some of the songs and wanted to know if he would be willing to flatter me by learning them and he seemed to be game to jump on board. I figured if we were going to do some REM songs we might as well go straight to the source."
Another luminary he brought in for recording the album was the country-folk star Gillian Welch.
"One of the cooler parts of making a country-rock record is having male and female vocals, harmonies throughout the record akin to Nicolette Larson and Neil Young, or Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. So we needed to find somebody who had a nice character to their voice and Gillian immediately sprang to mind and, thankfully, she was available and willing to do it."
At the moment they are focused on touring the album, after which they are looking forward to having a bit of a break. Presently they have no idea what sort of record they want to make next. "I've got a blank canvas there. We've been putting out records pretty consistently once every one or two years for the last 10 years so we might take a little time. I think we can give this one a little breathing room." In the meantime they are enjoying the rave reviews The King is Dead has brought them, which Meloy dubs "flattering".
While the band hold the No 1 album spot at home, in Britain their fanbase, while fervent, is slightly more modest. Are they ready for the new throngs of admirers that will no doubt come flocking off the back of the attention the new album is bringing, perhaps ones who may have been previously scared off with some of the Decemberists' more experimental recordings?
"Well, we've never pandered to anyone and we don't intend to," says Meloy. "This is the music that we want to play right now, and if it happens to appeal to a wider audience then it does. As long as the people who come to our shows are nice and smart people, then I don't have an issue with it. And I tend to think of our fans as being nice and smart; as long as they stay that way I don't have a problem."
The Decemberists certainly aren't a band looking for increased recognition or the opportunity to fill stadiums and are perfectly happy with their career trajectory thus far.
"Our success as a band is far beyond anything I expected to begin with," laughs Meloy. "And, to be honest, one of the major trappings of getting bigger is that you have to play in arenas and things, you have to start playing in places that sound really bad. I'm pretty happy playing theatres; I think I could be happy at this level forever. I don't really have any desire to be any more famous. I don't think that fame at any level necessarily suits me that well, so I'm pretty content."
The Decemberists' album 'The King is Dead' is out now. They tour the UK from 5 March (www.decemberists.com)