Head here to submit your own review of this album.

Even before they released The King Is Dead - four years ago this month - The Decemberists had already decided they'd be taking some time off once promotion was wrapped, and not without justification. It wasn't just that they'd been going pretty much full pelt since their debut, Castaways and Cutouts, introduced their uniquely cerebral style to the world in 2002; they'd begun to deal in extremes of late, with The King Is Dead's stripped-back Americana poles apart from its delightfully overblown predecessor, the sonically adventurous and thematically intricate concept album The Hazards of Love. By moving in that direction, they'd sacrificed a little of the verve and swagger that the more cohesive likes of Picaresque and The Crane Wife possessed in spades, and whilst, for my money at least, The King Is Dead served as a powerful bare-bones reminder of Colin Meloy's ability as a songwriter, the lukewarm critical reception it was generally afforded perhaps reinforced that their proposed hiatus was a sensible idea.

They've had ample time to recharge the creative batteries since, and perhaps that's what makes What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World such a triumph. Meloy, in particular, had turned his artistic hand to something else entirely during the break - the Wildwood Chronicles children's books that he penned and his wife, Carson Ellis, illustrated - and it might be the enforced simplicity of that particular medium that has nudged him away from the verbose tales of yore that he'd made his calling card over the past decade or so. There's still room for that, too - 'Cavalry Captain' is a case in point - but elsewhere, he's found new ways to indulge his penchant for storytelling. Opener 'The Singer Addresses His Audience' takes the old trope of decrying bands for selling their souls to The Man and finds a different angle on it entirely; Meloy's study is at once both stinging and sensitive, and features some trademark lyrical elegance - "so when your bridal processional is a televised confessional to the benefits of Axe shampoo, just know we did it for you."

Elsewhere, 'Philomena's raunchy spin on young love and the nervy, tender 'Carolina Low' could easily have slotted onto past Decemberists records, but there's also plenty more evidence of Meloy's progression. 'Make You Better' is a gorgeous exercise in heartbreak; no pretence, no real frills, and a stark guitar tone to match the sense of forthrightness. The track that the album takes its title from, meanwhile, is a revelation; '12-17-12', named simply for the date it was written, was Meloy's response to the Sandy Hook school massacre, and in particular President Obama's reading of the names of the victims three days later. It's ostensibly a very straightforward ode to his wife and children, but framed by the horror of the events that provided the impetus, it becomes the most moving song the band have ever put out.

It's not just in conceptual terms, though, that there's progression; purely in terms of sound, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is comfortably the most diverse Decemberists effort to date. The songs that bookend it, 'The Singer...' and 'A Beginning Song', are spiralling epics, neither of which would sound especially out of place in an arena, whilst the quickfire 'Better Not Wake the Baby' tackles poverty in old American folk style and 'Til the Water Is All Long Gone' pairs a hushed vocal with some noodling, almost sitar-like guitar work. 'Mistral' and 'The Wrong Year', meanwhile, defy the general perception of The King of Dead by proving that there was plenty left to mine from those rustic country-folk touchpoints, too.

The widely-held view of The Decemberists is that they're a little bit of an acquired taste; purely on the basis of records like Picaresque, you can perhaps understand that, especially when Meloy's lyricism is taken at face value. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is scored through with the group's idiosyncracies - there's certainly no loss of identity here - but what there is, as well, is maturity, ambition and variety, all of which conspire to form the basis of a very fine indie rock record - and there's no strings attached to that qualification.

This is the place you'll find reviews from 405 Readers. To join in, head here.