Original Artwork by Kristin Frenzel (Buy Prints + More)
The Decemberists are back after four long years. Cue the montage: Colin Meloy has been hard at work on his whimsical children’s book series, The Wildwood Chronicles, and the band’s other four founding members have been recording and touring with Portland bluegrass group Black Prairie. But after realizing that there was simply no one else to fill their hobnailed boots or effectively employ an accordion in a rock song, they combined their powers once again. The result is What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, their seventh studio album.
How high are the expectations this time around? While 2011’s The King Is Dead and 2009’s The Hazards of Love each had their own merits, they weren’t really anyone’s favorite works by The Decemberists, a fanciful band that seemed to hit its stride in the mid-aughts. Both of these albums went in completely new directions; one was an epic prog rock opera, the other a more straightforward take on folksy Americana. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World doesn’t build on either of those sounds; rather, it’s a chimera-like hybrid, returning to classic Decemberists form while offering something entirely new: a gentler, simpler version of the band than we’ve ever heard before.
There are undoubtedly some critics, and even longtime fans, who will be skeptical of the whole shebang. Lead singles “The Wrong Year” and “Make You Better” are the most accessible, radio-friendly pop tunes that the band has ever recorded — if you need any further proof, I can attest to hearing the latter in a Starbucks last week. (Can you imagine anyone playing “A Cautionary Tale”, from 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts, over the loudspeaker in a corporate coffee chain?) “But we’re not so starry-eyed anymore,” Meloy sings over lush major key piano chords and nice, orderly guitar notes. For those familiar with Decemberists tunes, the sentiment of becoming disillusioned with the blush of first love but continuing to love the other person anyway is, at first, perplexingly simple. Meloy isn’t calling your mother a whore in a roundabout way this time; he’s just reflecting on being married and having a couple of kids.
This shift is, at first, a little jarring. For much of his career with The Decemberists, Meloy has eschewed using his own life as source material for his lyrics, opting instead to mine Civil War history, Japanese folk tales, obscure ‘60s pop records, and the entire Western literary canon. Even ostensibly first-person narratives like “Los Angeles, I’m Yours”, from 2003’s Her Majesty The Decemberists, retain an air of distance, a degree of separation. For many music fans, this was undoubtedly both refreshing and liberating; after all, who needed another weepy, confessional song about heartbreak? That narrative thrust was what set The Decemberists apart and made them engaging in a completely different way from their contemporaries. In the more personal songs on What a Terrible World, that degree of separation is gone, replaced by a newfound intimacy. Some may relish the peek into Meloy’s life, but others might be disappointed by the ordinariness of the man behind the curtain.
Meloy has talked about how collaborating on The Wildwood Chronicles with his wife over the past few years has been an outlet for the fabulist in him, spurring him to write more inward-facing songs than ever before. President Obama’s national address after the Newtown school shootings inspired the song “12/17/12”, from which the album’s title is drawn. Meloy draws a sharp contrast between the horrific incident and his own domestic bliss, struggling to hold the two feelings together in his mind. While the concept might seem a little corny and oversimplified at first, it is, for better or worse, a duality that many of us have undoubtedly grappled with over the past year, with every news cycle bringing some fresh horror.
Songs like “Cavalry Captain” and “Carolina Low” represent the return-to-form element of What a Terrible World. At this point, writing a song from the perspective of an old-timey soldier is probably something that Meloy can do in his sleep, but what would a Decemberists album be without it? “Philomena” is another more narrative tune, featuring slyly sexual lyrics over doo-wop female vocals. It wouldn’t be entirely out of place on most of their older releases, but its lightheartedness and playful nature still make it feel fresh — it’s a song built from bamboo rather than heavy, dark mahogany.
There will surely be those who lament the loss of the high-concept Decemberists album. While What a Terrible World ultimately feels much less belabored than either of the band’s last two releases, it also blends the personal and the fictional to form a less cohesive whole. As a singles-driven pop record, it might garner a hit or two; as a Decemberists record, it ever-so-slightly misses the mark.
Essential Tracks: “Cavalry Captain”, “Make You Better”, and “12/17/12”