The Decemberists
What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World


4.0
excellent

Review

by SowingSeason STAFF
January 24th, 2015 | 237 replies


Release Date: 01/20/2015 | Tracklist

Review Summary: Not so starry-eyed anymore, and better for it.

We all knew The Decemberists were a different band when they unleashed 2011’s foray into folk-based Americana, The King Is Dead. The band said "no more!" to elaborate stories, literary references, and bloated opera-like production. Instead, songs were centered around heartwarming acoustics, personal lyrics, and accessible sing-along choruses. Basically, it was the ideal campfire album. That didn’t sit well with a lot of longtime fans, but it went on to find commercial success anyway and, perhaps to a smaller extent, critical acceptance. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is in many ways the next logical step, incorporating a lot of the same approaches that its predecessor did but also showcasing enough artistic growth to legitimize it as a separate and worthy entity. If The King Is Dead was a bottle of fine wine, then The Decemberists’ current album is that same bottle aged to perfection, served to a panoramic sky view of the city on a clear summer night.

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World garners its sense of maturity from frontman Colin Meloy’s incredibly genuine lyrics, as well as a rural/folksy charm that emanates from the restrained elegance of each instrumental contribution. Consider ‘Lake Song’ – which for all intents and purposes is a grown up ‘January Hymn’ – and the way the classical piano seems to fill the entire room. There’s very little else that’s needed, and Meloy plays to the atmosphere’s simplicity perfectly when he sings “to tell the truth I never had a clue.” It’s a gorgeous ballad, and its transparency results in a sense of pure emotional proximity between Meloy and his listeners. That rare, intangible sentiment echoes throughout the record because the band never stops playing music that is close to their heart. ‘12/17/12’ is another prime example, written as an open letter of sorts that questions God for willingly allowing the tragedy of the Sandy Hook Massacre to unfold. To a background of blues-ridden harmonica, Meloy pens the line “oh my God, what a world you have made…what a terrible world, what a beautiful world”, and suddenly the album’s title takes on a much heftier weight. The record’s solemn tone might be at its most potent on the brooding, mysterious ‘Till the Water’s All Long Gone’, which in addition to featuring one of the most memorable guitar licks here is also among its most heartbreaking lyrically: “my tender rose, my limber rose, my slender loving daughter…oh my girl, oh my love I’ve lost you.” The astounding depth of the topics covered on this record makes it undoubtedly one of the most impactful releases of The Decemberists’ storied catalog.

It’s not all tears and tragedy, however. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World possesses its fair share of lighthearted jams to pull the record from its murky and often depressing depths; making it quite the effective double-edged emotional sword. ‘A Singer Addresses His Audience’ opens the curtains in grandiose fashion, featuring sweeping strings, choral vocals, and an epic guitar solo. At times it is so in tune with The Decemberists’ lavish, epic-writing side that one can almost see the carrot dangling from its stick – and all of the salivating Picaresque and Crane Wife fans hopelessly chasing after it. What cruel bastards. At least they’re in on the joke though, with Colin Meloy singing “we know you threw your arms around us in the hopes we wouldn’t change…but we had to change, some.” At one point he even references Axe Shampoo. Then there’s ‘Better Not Wake the Baby’, a jangly, carefree ditty in which we are treated to a chorus of “bang your drum ‘til the money’s all gone but it better not wake the baby.” It’s just straightforward and loads of fun. On ‘Philomena’, Meloy gleefully sings “all that I wanted in the world was just to live to see a naked girl.” There’s also some lines that seem to not-so-subtly allude to oral sex, like “…oh Philomena are you in a tawdry gown, open up your linen lap and let me go down, down, down.” It’s all okay as long as there’s oldie rock styled ooh-ah’s and la la la’s in the background, right" The bottom line, though, is that The Decemberists haven’t lost the spark that’s always made them an enjoyable and unpredictable listen, regardless of whatever Meloy is rambling on about.

There isn’t a single poorly constructed song on the entire record. In an era where – even in indie music – “hit singles” are the focus of everyone’s attention, that’s saying a lot. There’s tracks like ‘Cavalry Captain’ and ‘A Beginning Song’ that may fall between the cracks simply because they don’t have an overtly recognizable hook, but they are still excellent songs and vital components to What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. Every song is essential is some way. However, there are certain ones that simply stand out as the “clear highlights.” With its upbeat and intricate guitar work, ‘The Wrong Year’ belongs in this category. It straddles the line between the Americana of The King is Dead and straightforward classic rock influences, while featuring lyrics that are highly relatable yet still open to interpretation – “she wants you but you won’t do, and it won’t leave you alone…and the rain falls on the wrong year, and it won’t leave you alone.” It could be speaking to a number of different audiences, although (with a fair amount of personal bias) it may be referencing a relationship that didn't materialize because the stars were never properly aligned. ‘Make You Better’ is another obvious gem – in fact, it just might be the most well-rounded song that The Decemberists have ever written. It literally has everything, from a slow, softly-sung introduction to an all-out memorable chorus “we’re not so starry-eyed anymore, like the perfect paramour you were in your letters.” The instrumentation keeps pace perfectly, featuring joyful piano, waves of acoustic guitar, and very active drumming that sets the tone but never oversteps its bounds. It’s nearly impossible not to sing along to once you know the words. Of course, there are other tracks that belong in the “best of the bunch”, many of which have already been referenced…‘Lake Song’, ‘Till the Water’s All Long Gone’, etc. Hell, depending upon your mood, any of these songs could fit the bill – and that’s just what makes What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World such a special experience. There isn’t a weak link, and at any given moment, a different song is capable of emerging as the strongest within the group.

It is understandable why so many people – particularly diehard fans – are having trouble accepting the new direction that The Decemberists have moved in. After all, Picaresque, The Crane Wife, and The Hazards of Love were all excellent prog-folk albums that had a distinct affinity for the big stage. Some may still decry the lack of bells and whistles (just as they did on 2011’s The King Is Dead), but those who are willing to give this band a fresh start will be rewarded. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World explores a much wider range of topics than their previous literature/storyline-bound themes could have possibly covered, and the result is hands down the most emotive release of The Decemberists’ career. It’s not “epic”, but it certainly is magnificent in its own way. It’s the perfect album to sit around a fire with…to be out on the lake with…to be alone in thought with. Give What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World a chance, and you just might find that it is also the perfect album to be in love with.



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user ratings (238)
Chart.
3.4
great
other reviews of this album
Waior (4)
“Bang your drum ‘til the money’s all gone, but it better not wake the baby.”...

ProjectFreak (4.5)
I'm not going on just to sing another Summersong....



Comments:Add a Comment 
SowingSeason
Moderator
January 24th 2015


29864 Comments

Album Rating: 4.2 | Sound Off

Sorry Jacob Royal, I held out for as long as I could.



Recommended tracks (besides all of them):



Lake Song

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cErckfwG_8



Till the Water is All Long Gone

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIl7h8DzGU4



Make You Better

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zoECQpISBtQ



The Wrong Year

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98XFrVREkm8

ti0n
January 24th 2015


1769 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Nice review. Sad that you didnt mention "a beginning song". In my eyes the best and most magnificent song on this.

AliW1993
January 24th 2015


7511 Comments


Fantastic review. This is growing on me a lot. It's got a more traditional Decemberists sound but sticks to The King is Dead's structural simplicity. I loved that record but it hasn't aged too well.

ComeToDaddy
January 24th 2015


1792 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Really great review, this album is unbelievably lovable. Probably going to turn into my favorite Decemberists with a bit of time

Onirium
January 24th 2015


3035 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Excellent review. I'm getting into the album quite slowly, but it's definitely growing. This new direction

seems to fit their style better than I expected. Still, as much as I love the melodic work, a lot of chords

progressions and melodies are predictable, and some songs feel like they're lacking something important from

the band's signature sound and quirky eccentricity. But once you get past that, it just makes for such a fun

and warm listen, so I'm still not sure what to think of it, except maybe that it's probably Meloy's best

vocal performance to date.

pizzamachine
January 24th 2015


14133 Comments


Very colorful review, I like. Now I wanna listen to the album lol

ProjectFreak
January 24th 2015


3444 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

This is growing on me hard. But I love "A Beginning Song." The ending is magnificent.



Honestly, though, not a bad track on here. Better Not Wake the Baby, Lake Song, Till The Water's All Gone...



I foresee Sowing will bump this to a 4.5+ by year's end.

Archelirion
January 24th 2015


5647 Comments


I see on the horizon some fine quality Sowing-core. I'll probably like this, although judging by the comments it takes a bit of time. Great review by the way.

indigonowhere
Emeritus
January 24th 2015


10727 Comments


Nice work dude. No worries life has been hella busy lately

I haven't had a chance to listen to this too much, but I gotta say it's def a sound that suits these guys well

Skoop
January 24th 2015


2083 Comments


meh, but good review

SowingSeason
Moderator
January 24th 2015


29864 Comments

Album Rating: 4.2 | Sound Off

Thanks everyone, that's much appreciated!



@ti0n: I did mention (albeit briefly) as a song that doesn't have an overtly obvious hook but is still incredible.



@Ali: This record is definitely a grower, although I feel that TKID also was. Both are in a similar standing with me right now as records that I can relax to at any time and totally connect to. I think over time this album will prove to be even better, though.



@ComeToDaddy: Yeah it's definitely at the top of my list, although I'm not sure if it can top The Crane Wife. Have you heard their proggier, rock-opera style stuff? At the very least this will probably end up being my favorite of new-era Decemberists.



@Onirium: I definitely agree that it is Meloy's best vocal performance to date. Hands down. I know it's hard to get past the lack of quirks and action, but once you accept this for a lazy summer hammock by the lake type of record, and redefine its strengths and weaknesses accordingly, it becomes much easier to enjoy.



@pizza: Do it. If you liked The King Is Dead you won't regret it.



@ProjectFreak: Absolutely correct, not a single weak track. It's not often that I feel compelled to state that verbatim in a review, but it's just so true. I've already changed favorite songs like 3 times, with many more to come I'm sure. They're all qualified.



@Aaron: I have to say I like the sound of this Sowing-core!



Omaha: Thanks dude, if I didn't care about this band so much I probably wouldn't have even bothered, but I didn't want the dates to fly by without having a chance for us to get our score out there to metacritic and such. Glad you like this, although my advice is that it's a grower...give it time and watch it age, like fine wine.



@skoopy: Your comment is exactly how I felt about this at first (I probably also would have rated it between a 2.5 and 3) but it definitely takes time (queue the fine wine reference again). If you've given this multiple opportunities over several days then cool, but if not I suggest you try it again, maybe in a different setting. For some reason this really clicked with me while I was driving home in light snow flurries. It's different for everyone, but I do believe this album has a way of connecting with most people.

JohnnyOnTheSpot
Emeritus
January 24th 2015


6681 Comments


honestly, one of your best reviews, at least from what I've read. almost makes me want to spin this... yeah, probably will.

Archelirion
January 24th 2015


5647 Comments


Yeah, so this was great. Cavalry Captain was a particular standout from first listen.

SowingSeason
Moderator
January 24th 2015


29864 Comments

Album Rating: 4.2 | Sound Off

Thanks Johnny, I don't know how much this fits your taste but I'd recommend it regardless. The only thing that might be challenging is that it's a grower, so you'll probably want to commit 5+ listens if you are serious about wanting to like it. If I reviewed it after my first 2-3 listens I probably would have given it no better than a 3.0-3.5.



@Aaron: Cavalry Captain is great, although I'm drawn more to the thoughtful ballads on this. Lake Song and Till the Water's All Long Gone, in particular, make this album what it is to me.





Archelirion
January 24th 2015


5647 Comments


I expect that my standouts will change with time, they nearly always do. Lake Song is pretty beautiful, I'll hand you that. The suspicion is that this'll be in my listening A LOT for the next few weeks.

Underflow
January 24th 2015


4866 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

The lyrics to the opening song are incredible.

Skoop
January 24th 2015


2083 Comments


K its been snowing non stop so maybe I'll try that

TwigTW
January 24th 2015


3657 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

"At times it is so in tune with The Decemberists’ lavish, epic-writing side that one can almost see the carrot dangling from its stick – and all of the salivating Picaresque and Crane Wife fans hopelessly chasing after it."



Guilty . . . I can't believe they'll ever beat the earlier albums. The King Is Dead left no impression on me at all. Still, this one grabbed me right away. There is some really nice stuff here. It's definitely growing on me.

Digging: Jungstotter - Love Is

SowingSeason
Moderator
January 24th 2015


29864 Comments

Album Rating: 4.2 | Sound Off

I felt that way at first but the new style is winning me over.

Shiranui
January 25th 2015


551 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

A Beginning Song really is a nice ending track. I guess the tracklist hasn't been completed?



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