It was no surprise that Colin Meloy began The Decemberists’ concert in New York City on Monday, April 6, with the opening track from the band’s latest album, “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.”
It was, however, a revelation that before “The Singer Addresses His Audience” ended, Meloy had managed to make the sold-out Beacon Theatre — with a capacity of nearly 3,000 — feel like an intimate space.
On “Singer,” Meloy belted out in his clear, incisive voice, “We know we belong to you. We know you built your lives around us.”
This acknowledgement precedes a confession: “We know you threw your arms around us in the hopes we wouldn’t change, but we had to change some.”
The Decemberists’ evolution since its formation in 2000, both lyrically and instrumentally, is particularly conspicuous on its latest LP. The band has moved away from its trademark folksy sound, in addition to utilizing less of its infamous literary finesse. There were far fewer “parapets” and “irascible blackguards” than on past albums. It is a topic the band recognizes on a few new tracks, including “Anti-Summersong.”
Meloy sang, “I’m not going on just to sing another summersong,” referencing the catchy track from 2006’s “The Crane Wife.”
“I know New York is a city full of shy people who have a hard time expressing themselves,” Meloy said, gently mocking the crowd for remaining in their seats during that particular song. “I will break you before the night ends.”
And he did just that with a chilling performance of “Make You Better,” a powerful track fraught with nostalgic pining from the new album. Here Meloy sings, “I needed you to make me better, but we’re not so starry-eyed anymore.”
Besides the several songs pulled from “What a Terrible World,” the band performed an artillery of tracks from its back catalog, including an extensive, four-song block from the 2009 rock opera, “The Hazards of Love.”
The audience furiously clapped along to “The Rake’s Song,” a pucky track during which Meloy — bathed in a malicious red light — plays a widower who feels no remorse after killing his children in order to be rid of the responsibility of raising them.
Before the band returned for a double encore, it ended, ironically, with “A Beginning Song.”
Not only have The Decemberists changed over the past decade and a half, but the world they live in has, as well — a fact Meloy pointed out during the first song of the encore, “12/17/12.” The song serves as a poignant reaction to the Newtown, Conn. school shootings.
“Here with my heart so whole while others may be grieving, to think of their grieving,” Meloy sang. “And O my god, what a world you have made here. What a terrible world, what a beautiful world.”
For the final encore, The Decemberists returned to “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” from 2005’s “Picaresque,” a gypsy-folk odyssey that boasts the band’s knack for storytelling.
“The first thing written was the scream, and I wrote the song around it,” Meloy said. “I worked on the scream for a long time, alone in my room, screaming.”
Multi-instrumentalist Jenny Conlee played the anguishing mother who, on her deathbed, instructs her son to avenge her death by finding her runaway, roustabout lover. At the end of the song, both the son and his mother’s lover miraculously survive a whale attack when they “slip between his teeth” and end up together in his belly.
“Three-quarters of the way through this song,” Meloy directed, “I want you to scream like you’re being swallowed by a whale. But since you’re New Yorkers and you’ll do whatever you want, and since time is relative and you won’t know when it’s three-quarters of the way through the song, there will be a signal.”
The signal came from guitarist Chris Funk, who made a giant biting motion with his arms. The whale itself made an appearance in the form of a gigantic wooden cut-out, chomping his jaws across the stage and eating up the entire band as Conlee’s order escalated in tempo: “Find him, bind him, tie him to a pole and break his fingers to splinters, drag him to a hole until he wakes up, naked, clawing at the ceiling of his grave.”
The audience may not have left the show “rioting all up the Upper West Side” as Meloy had intended, but it is safe to say The Decemberists’ first New York show in four years was an epic one.
*This story was originally published in The Signal.