Album Review: The Decemberists, 'What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World'


The Decemberists, 'What a Terrible World, What a B
The Decemberists, 'What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World'. (© 2015 Capitol Records.)

The Decemberists' seventh album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, continues the band's gentle trajectory away from the fictive, toward the personal. It's an unsurprising path for a band who have lived a good bit of life — from sippy cups to cancer treatment — since their last release four years ago. Like Tom Waits or Modest Mouse, the Decemberists have made a name for themselves over the years by operating in alternate modes: swashbuckling jaunts and masterful ballads. (I can't make it to the end of "Grace Cathedral Hill" with my mascara intact.) What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, with moments moody and tender, leans toward the latter, and with a marked absence of forest nymphs.

I find the absence, for now, welcome. As I age, the soundtrack to my life seems to demand something more grounded. The matter of the world in front of me is both my toddler's morning tantrum and the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. Now, more than ever, I need music to help me manage these realities — fewer pirates and geishas, and more inquiry into the human condition. This album delivers that, without abandoning what I love about The Decemberists. Terrible/Beautiful lives in the same world that we do — a place where the banal and the profound are roommates: teenage crushes, married love, national tragedies, crappy vacations.

There are some really solid tracks on this album. The standout opener, "The Singer Addresses His Audience," feels like the narrator of 2003's "I Was Meant for the Stage"; older, wiser and capable of setting healthy boundaries. The album's lead single, "Make You Better," is, for me, the high point. It's a beautifully written, sonically plush track that manages to sound like every non-Riot-Grrrl song I loved in the '90s — some R.E.M. influence, and a Chris Funk-powered bridge that recalls Belle & Sebastian. "Lake Song" manages to sound both like a lost Nick Drake track and Castaways and Cutouts-era Decemberists. "Carolina Low" and "Till The Water's All Long Gone" weave a delicately bluesy thread through the folk of the band's last effort, The King is Dead. "12/17/12", written in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, is spare and lovely, and Meloy at his most personal. And the album ends with a beginning: "A Beginning Song" alludes to the birth of Meloy's second child, and sends the album lifting off on similar wings to The Crane Wife's "Sons and Daughters."

If your preference is for a more whimsical Decemberists, there's a little bit of that here, too. "Philomena" is a rakish, doo-wop come-on to a saint who isn't having any of it. On "Easy Come, Easy Go", the band stretch sonically, pairing typical Meloy lyrics (quirkily macabre) with plucky cowboy/surf guitars. "Better Not Wake the Baby" takes the reverse route — lyrically, more personal, but set to the kind of mead-hall romp you'd expect from the band. Newish, and welcome, on this album: a greater focus on backing vocals, with Jenny Conlee's singing enhanced by visiting vocalists Rachel Flotard and Kelly Hogan. And if you're a longtime Decemberists fan, tracks like "Mistral" and "The Wrong Year" feel like they would've been at home on earlier efforts like Her Majesty, The Decemberists.

All in all, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is a satisfying album that can play easily from start to finish. Will it make everybody's year-end lists? Maybe not. But it contains standout tracks that likely will. More importantly, this record stands as evidence that The Decemberists are a band who will continue to grow up with us.

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World releases Tuesday, Jan. 20. Here are a few advance videos from the forthcoming album.

"Make You Better"
"Lake Song"
"The Wrong Year"
"A Beginning Song"

What do you think of the album? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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