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.