What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World

The Decemberists

Capitol, 2015


REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


I think I got it backwards as a Decemberists fan. Most fans seem to embrace the band’s early works like Picaresque and The Crane Wife, but I much prefer the prog opera of The Hazards Of Love (which seems now like an anomaly in the band’s discography) and the more overt pop rock of The King Is Dead. That 2011 album is the band’s most recent offering and it brought them more mainstream fame with “Down By The Water,” and so in the four-year interim fans wondered if the band would continue down that path or go back to their folk-pop roots.

Turns out, they do both, with a nod to the latter in sound. This is a bright, shiny power-folk-pop album that bears that Decemberists sound but not quite the spirit. The melodies are dour, the emotions are both sweet and bittersweet, but this time the lyrics are more personal and reflective. “Cavalry Captain” is a song without a time, drawing on late R.E.M. and ‘70s horn-driven pop but managing to make it sound modern and melancholy, while the simple “The Singer Addresses His Audience” is a look at fame from a broad perspective and from a personal note: “We know we know we belong to ya / We know you build your life around us / And would we change? We had to change some,” notes Colin Meloy, and he is talking to you.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Much of this wouldn’t sound out of place on The Crane Wife, like “Philomena” (a lust-filled piece not dissimilar in sound to “O Valencia”) or the gentle yearning of “Lake House.” Yet where prior albums featured fictional characters and overarching concepts, this one blends the two to create something more relatable and personal, if less memorable. To wit: “12/17/12,” Meloy’s rumination on life in the wake of the Newtown school shootings, where he reconciles the terrible event with the newfound joy he feels about being a father.

“Till The Water’s All Long Gone” is a beautiful acoustic piece of the sort the band nails better than most, while “Carolina Low” and “Better Not Wake the Baby” find solace in a stripped-down approach and Americana folk, respectively. The country flavors of “Anti-Summersong,” “Mistral” and “Easy Come, Easy Go” bring a new and somewhat unnecessary dimension to the band’s sound, but they can be forgiven since the four-year hiatus has clearly recharged the band’s batteries, and they’re willing to do anything except another concept album.

Closer “A Beginning Song” finds hope in its music and in literate, awkward lyrics like “Document the world inside his skin / The tenor of your shins / The timbre of your limbs” before concluding that happiness “it’s sunlight, it’s shadow / It’s the quiet, it’s the word / It’s the beating heart, it’s the ocean, it’s the boys / It’s you, my sweet love.” The Colin Meloy of 2004 would never have allowed such a personal statement on record, but 11 years on, he has ditched some of the folktales and costumes for a look behind the mask.

How you feel about the band’s early works will determine if that is a journey worth taking. The strange thing is that, by becoming a little more personal in his approach, Meloy loses some of what makes the band so appealing. Still, the sound continues to evolve, and as “The Singer…” points out, they had to change at some point. Yet many of these songs, no matter how crisp and unique they sound, just lack the spark of previous albums, especially the last two. But that’s just me; if you loved The Crane Wife, you will no doubt get more out of What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World.

Rating: C

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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