The Decemberists - What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

Despite expectations to the contrary, The Decemberists have made a career from a celt-infused prog teetering precariously on the border of the operatic, combining an ancient lyricism with an anthemic absurdist enormity that unapologetically taps into the most overwrought emotion in its rambling enthusiasm. The Portland band have been enthusiastically received right from the start since Five Songs, with each album representing one side of an alternating engagement with excess and restraint, probably culminating in their 2009 album The Hazards of Love which famously contained “The Rakes Song”, an ode to infanticide and the freedom gained by refusing familial ties. The album combined the unrestrained creativity of Colin Meloy at its most fecund with a passionate series of guests plucked from the who’s who of indie cool, though it tested the patience of the transitory fans who preferred the practiced and beautiful control of The Crane Wife. The Hazards of Love was followed by another example of Meloy’s lyrical light touch with The King is Dead. Now, at the start of 2015, we have the next Decemberists offering, that this time ignores the preceding patterns and tickles rather than taunts the listener.

As a diehard Decemberists fan, this review initially gave me cause for distress when my early listens left me cold. Where The Decemberists have always reached out and made a grab for me, I found myself virtually sitting in a lounge chair in front of a roaring fire with Meloy, the music tacking an uncharacteristic back seat in a sort of polite tête-à-tête that wasn’t what I wanted from The Decemberists. I prefer to be flattered by Meloy’s complex lyrics, and engaged with the multiple nuances as the music acts as a time machine plunging me into various musical periods, daring me to recognize each of them. Meloy and The Decemberitsts have always rewarded nuanced effort and the cool hand of my own snobbery as deep engagement takes me further into “What? You don’t GET it?” territory. It’s an aesthetic The Decemberesits have (maybe) pretended they’re not aware of, but I find that difficult to believe, because with What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, they’ve abandoned the flattery and focused on a straight up series of songs that only appeal to the lover of the ballad inside.

Now, after listening on repeat and getting used to an uncharacteristic delicacy, I find the album reaches into the listener with a complexity I didn’t expect, and didn’t recognize. The journey begins with song one, “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, a tongue-in-cheek playful criticism of the very peculiar relationship between the fan and the musician. The refrain, “we know we belong to you”, speaks to the trade made when the fans appropriate a band’s look and style – it’s a sellout that isn’t a sellout at all, because surely every band wants (and needs) its followers, and yet the exchange that takes place weighs heavily on the obligations of a band benefitting from rock star status.

This sets the album up as an intimate journey with Meloy and the other members, who draw the listener in where the great oceanic waves of feeling (and the wanting comes in waves) of the past have been condensed into the subject matter. The album’s title, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, is a quote taken from Barack Obama’s speech in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, while the style reflects Meloy’s feelings about these sorts of happenings as he lives in relative peace and joy at home.

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is an album built on the bones of its forbears rather than one to attract a new breed of fan because songs like “Lake Song” might be confused for something spineless, unless you’ve listened to The King Is Dead and notice there’s a time wise transition going on, moving on into a new kind of Decemberists. The song could be accused of simplicity, but we know who The Decemberists are, therefore it feels more like a harking back to a musician’s youth. The same can be said for the choral simplicity of “Till the Water’s All Long Gone” or familiarly simple “Mistral”. The important anthemic turbulence is there in the gorgeously anti-domestic “Better Not Wake the Baby” (“gouge your eyes with a butter knife, but you’d better not wake the baby”), the ode to a cash-strapped southern-country with “Easy Come, Easy Go” or the Tennyson inspired “Calvary Captain”.  But there’s a new Meloy being revealed as well, an intimate, vulnerable Meloy coming through in jest such as the cheeky ode to cunnilingus “Philomena” and the disarmingly vulnerable “Make You Better” that reminds us just how little we know about this songwriter who has given us so much pleasure through seven solid albums. It turns out the theatricality was a mask, even as it was so effective in stripping away so many other thin veils.

After settling in and living with it, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World satisfies in a deeper way than expected, the turns and twists of the band’s alternating between a return to their own roots alongside a new pared down vulnerability take us on a new leg of the Decemberists journey. As they say in the first song, “we had to change” and while this change might be littered with wistful day dreams, there is no doubt that the new easier, closer Decemberists sneak in and tickle you softly with more intimacy than they did before.

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