After a long four-year wait, folk indie rockers The Decemberists, impress with their new album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. After this substantial recording hiatus lead singer Colin Meloy sounds more confident in his delivery and the pictures painted feel more complete tonally. On The King is Dead, while there was a more consistent folk presence, the album seemed to simmer on low throughout. This time around, influences of folk, Americana, baroque pop, and rock have more concrete moments of clarity. Standouts include “Make You Better”, “Lake Song”, “Till the Water Is All Long Gone”, “Caroline Low”, and “12-17-12”. Only “Better Not Wake The Baby” seemed stretched too thin in its aim of a particular sound, which left it feeling uncharacteristically (for The Decemberists) inauthentic.
While one could focus more attention on the instrumentals, this author’s experience and developed affection for The Decemberists was fostered through their careful attention to words and the well-crafted stories effortlessly expressed in their lyrics. In What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, the lyrics are often playful in character, starting with a witty address to their fans, “The Singer Addresses his Audience”. This opening song parodies the intense, borderline obsessive, connection fans feel for a band with lines like, “We’re aware that you cut your hair in the style that our drummer wore in the video” and “So when your bridal processional is a televised confessional to the benefit of Axe shampoo / you know we did it for you”. Yet, the lyrics reinforce the symbiotic nature of the relationship with the repetition of phrases like “We belong to you” and the acknowledgement that “We had to change some / to belong to you”. Then “Anti-Summersong” takes on the convention of a peppy summer tune and turns it on it’s head through the juxtaposition of music and lyrics. Though it moves in upbeat celebration, Meloy sings, “I’m not going on just to sing another sing-along suicide song / So long / Farewell / Don’t everybody fall all over themselves”.
Always the storytellers, not only does the album cover a lot of ground sonically, it continues the Decemberist tradition of creating vibrant fully-fleshed out stories. There is the sexual fever of youth in “Philomena”; the inadequacy of desire and instability of signs to understand it in “The Wrong Year”; the difficulty of holding the pain of others and the joy possible through togetherness in “12-17-12”. Some of the stories, as well developed as they are, cannot quite match “Make You Better” with its enticing hook. However, like much of Sam Beam’s irresistible ramble, you go back again and again because of the journey you walk through on each listen.
The final song is aptly titled “A Beginning Song” – recalling the line “In my end is my beginning” from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” – expresses beautifully the experience of the listeners leading up to the beginning of the album. While many of earlier songs had a softer start only to later add in electric guitar, “A Beginning Song” reverses this and pulls back at the bridge with the mention of light and all that it can encompass, “my sweet love”, before leading back into a smile-inducing build. The lyrics communicate the progression of waiting, to wanting, to being hopeful and bathed in light; thankfully avoiding a saccharine hue, the doubt and questioning embedded in such development are also present. Such lyrics map too how fans waited, wanted, and were hopeful for a new album, and then bathed in light as the notes finally soar out of headphones.
Written by Nina Leonard
OurVinyl | Contributor