Decemberists, gig review: Triumphant return after four-year hiatus brings new emotional directness

Glasgow's 02 Academy welcomed Colin Meloy and his Portland pals with rapturous enthusiasm

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The Independent Culture

It's been a long four years without any Decemberists activity - no records or tours since 2011, the five-piece fabulists from Portland, Oregon having reached a point where other things came first, primarily frontman and songwriter Colin Meloy's wish to attend to his young family and to pursue a career as the author of children's books.

Fans wondered if the teeming store of material that the Decemberists had built up over the previous decade - love songs, nature songs, prog-rock extravaganzas, folk tales steeped in the aesthetics of centuries past - would ever be added to.

Then, late last year, came news of a new album (their seventh) and a tour, but also of a somewhat changed Meloy, now 40 and seemingly harbouring an ambivalence about the whole Decemberists project - not just its purpose and aims but the demography the band had espoused.

Would this bespectacled hero of the modern urban liberal be reinventing himself? Was his blend of warmth and spikiness leaning more towards the latter? Would we fail to recognise a man so many had come to know and love?

Happily, the answer to all those questions is no. For all that Meloy appeared to be having doubts about the repetitiveness involved in giving his audience what they wanted, the new album - What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World - is a collection of songs in the classic Decemberists mould, but different, and the better for it, in offering up an emotional directness that in the past has tended to be hidden behind antique personas. And with this show, the first in a seven-date UK tour, the Decemberists triumphed in a way that would have been familiar to anyone who has seen them a few times before. Playful, theatrical, musically on top form, and with Meloy's keening gravelly tenor sounding better than ever, the band were back like they'd never been away.

There was really little choice but to begin the concert with "The Singer Addresses His Audience", the first track off the new album, in which Meloy explores the band's relationship with their fans, lightly satirising all concerned. That indulgence over with, Meloy and the band, numbering seven altogether with the inclusion of two backing singers, were soon into their stride, belting out a couple of favourites in a superlatively astringent "16 Military Wives" and the glorious REM-like rocker, "Down By The Water". It was back to the new album for the slightly meandering "Lake Song" before the band buffed their prog credentials with "The Island" from The Crane Wife.

In a three-piece suit that did nothing to lessen his charisma, Meloy gave us a haunting "Eli the Barrow Boy", a euphoric "O Valencia!", and the wonderful love letter-of-sorts that is "Los Angeles I'm Yours". Wit, tease, and showman, Meloy had such command of the occasion - funniest moment: "What are you cheering for? That's a terrible song!" - that it was easy to overlook the superb work of the rest of the band, notably Chris Funk on guitar and Jenny Conlee on keyboards. Meloy's playing - on a variety of acoustic guitars - has its own resplendence but it's the voice that really enthrals.

On a chilly Glaswegian night it was marvellous the way, at the encore stage, he introduced a summer mood with the elegiacally beautiful "June Hymn" before the evening climaxed in the ridiculously antic melodrama that is "The Mariner's Revenge", complete with the band playing dead, plus on-cue sound effects from an audience that Meloy had enormous fun in tutoring for the occasion.

No Decemberists fan would want another hiatus as long as the one just endured. Then again, we should perhaps be grateful that the band have returned at all.

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