Early in the Decemberists' show at the Merriweather Post Pavilion Thursday night, silver-suited lead singer Colin Meloy was explaining how one of his songs started as a ploy to get his then-4-year-old son to eat his food. Strumming his acoustic guitar without the band, he sang two verses of 'Hank, Eat Your Oatmeal,' a bouncy, standard-issue modern-rock song.
But when he got to the bridge, Meloy's strong tenor leaped up an octave and pealed, "Aroo," which most of the crowd recognized as the irresistible refrain from 'Calamity Song.' The audience jumped to its feet; the rest of the Decemberists joined in, and soon everyone was singing along to this apocalyptic tale of Andalusian refugees burning the plains of Nebraska.
It was the merely the first of many examples of Meloy transforming the ingredients of contemporary rock 'n' roll into ear-candy hooks, childlike humor, mythic narratives, and terrific live theater. The Portland, Oregon, group played half of the 14 songs on its superb new album, "What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World," and seemed to wrestle with the paradox of the title in each one.
'The Wrong Year,' for example, described a relationship grinding between the gears of overwhelming desire and fundamental incompatibility. Folk-music echoes stirred by Jenny Conlee's accordion and the 12-string guitars of Meloy and Chris Funk made this story seem as ancient as the Bible and as current as the latest tweet.
Harmony vocals were provided by two of America's finest female singers: Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor. Hogan provided lustrous coloring to new songs such as 'Make You Better' and 'The Singer Addresses His Audience.' O'Connor provided the rock 'n' roll duet vocal required by 'The Wanting Comes in Waves.' The two women were alone with Meloy for a haunting, Appalachian version of 'Carolina Low.'
Hogan and O'Connor also became a giant whale puppet spouting confetti through its blowhole on the encore version of 'The Mariner's Revenge Song.' And they helped the five regular members of the Decemberists negotiate the three-part song suite 'The Island' with great finesse. The theatrical approach was reinforced by the stage backdrop: a giant quilt resembling the new album's cover.
The Decemberists made the brave but unusual decision to take four years off from recording and touring, even though their 2010 album, "The King Is Dead," had topped the charts. The time off did them good, for they sounded refreshed and loose, in contrast to so many bands that remain too long on the record-tour-record-tour treadmill.