It’s a bit of a challenge to imagine the Decemberists as anything other than a band having fun telling dramatically epic narratives about suicide pacts, tragedy, and being stranded inside a whale. Their 2012 live album We All Raise Our Voices To The Air could attest to that. So after listening to What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World several times, I initially felt a slight disconnect between the band and the words they were singing. It took several more listens before I was able to say oh, they’re serious.
And they are. Both in lyrics that are self-reflective and those about the obvious change they’ve undertaken across this and their last record, The King Is Dead. When Colin Meloy sings Lake Song, it sounds like the poetic account of a romance that never came to light, but the realization that it’s autobiographical makes it all the more striking.
The Singer Addresses His Audience is a tongue-in-cheek mockery of those diehard fans who “cut your hair in the same style that our drummer wore in the video.” Likely those who have voiced strong opposition to the last album. Anti-Summersong is a reiteration that they’re not redoing the same thing they’ve done on past albums again, “I’m not going on just to sing another summersong,” a reference to a track from The Crane Wife.
Is the repeat reminder a lack of confidence in their own decision or just a way to really get the point across – a twist of the proverbial dagger, if you will? If this album were their first, it would still be a solid record. But it’s their seventh. Enough for them to justify pretty much anything at this point. They’ve had some exceptional pieces of music over the last decade and a half. We know what they’re capable of. They don’t have anything they need to prove.
The album branches out much more than The King Is Dead but holds on to enough of the band’s roots that it pulls them closer to familiar territory. Despite the revelation that the lyrics are both serious and self-reflective, they haven’t sacrificed their sense of humour.
In Philomena, which has a slight 60s doo-wop sound, Colin sings about going down. Before, that would have been in reference to a sinking ship – Philomena going down – this time it’s not. Philomena is a woman. Only Colin Meloy can make going down sound so respectable in an old fashioned way.
On the flip side, Better Not Wake The Baby plays like a nursery rhyme in the vain of an Irish roots song. “Bang your drum till the money’s all gone/but you better not wake the baby.”
There’s a nice contrast between these songs and those like 12/17/12, which offers perspective on the tragedies of today’s world while still showing pride in being a new father. It’s a conflict that rises several times throughout. Being happy doesn’t mean not being aware that others are grieving or suffering.
These contrasts are what make the album succeed. It shows much versatility not only in comparison to their discography but from within as well. Calvary Caption has a Motown feel, Mistral has a southern gospel tinge right out of Memphis, and Make You Better, the first single and easily their most mainstream one so far, plays like REM led by Colin Meloy’s distinguishable vocals.
There’s a lot to take in with What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, and that’s a good thing. While one may long for the cohesiveness of past albums, this one thrives because it covers so much ground. Their adventurous tales may be few and far between but they haven’t completely dropped the elegance that made their earlier work so unique.
1. The Singer Addresses His Audience
2. Cavalry Captain
4. Make You Better
5. Lake Song
6. Till The Water’s All Long Gone
7. The Wrong Year
8. Carolina Law
9. Better Not Wake The Baby
11. Easy Come, Easy Go
14. A Beginning Song