The Decemberists, ‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World’ – Album Review
Last fall, frontman Colin Meloy announced the Decemberists’ seventh album by performing alone and with barely any advance notice near a subway entrance on a Brooklyn street corner. Standing before a huge mural of the album artwork painted on the side of a building, Meloy played sparse acoustic versions of songs from ‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.’
While a modest scattering of fans and curious onlookers gathered around him, Meloy – bespectacled and with a hint of gray in his beard – didn’t seem all that different from the buskers who normally populate the area. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a few cameras, most of the people passing through wouldn’t have given him a glance. But Meloy smiled and seemed tickled with his anonymity. He wasn’t the indie icon he’s been for much of the nearly 15 years since his band ascended out of Portland on listeners’ deep connection with 2005’s ‘Picaresque’ and 2006’s ‘The Crane Wife.’ For a moment, he was just a smartly dressed man with a guitar – one thread in the tapestry of the city’s sounds – telling his stories to anyone who would listen.
It turned out to be the perfect introduction to the album.
‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World’ is a departure for the Decemberists – the same band whose last two albums were an actual rock opera (2009’s ‘The Hazards of Love’) and a concerted effort to venture into uncharted country and blues territory (2011’s ‘The King Is Dead’). The new album is straightforward and accessible, diverse but cohesive and, at its core, more conventional than anything the Decemberists have done before. That’s not to say it isn’t good, though.
Maybe it’s because the band so openly addresses the issue right out of the gate with ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’ – which is precisely that. Meloy playfully breaks the fourth wall to explain the change to longtime fans, singing, “We know we belong to ya / We know you built your life around us / And would we change? / We had to change some / Ya know, to belong to you.”
Of course, to a casual listener, it all still sounds like the Decemberists. It’s alternately upbeat (‘Make You Better’), mournful (‘Carolina Low’) and accordion-tinged (‘The Wrong Year’) and all revolving around Meloy’s easy flowing vocals. While there are some adventurous bits (‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ sounds like a surf-rock soundtrack to a Western and ‘The Calvary Captain’ is borderline disco-rock), the album is mostly even keel and radio-friendly. It’s reminiscent of R.E.M. in the early ‘90s with an acoustic guitar sound that often evokes ‘Houses of the Holy’-era Led Zeppelin.
But longtime fans will immediately pick up on the biggest change: Meloy is talking about himself. Instead of constructing fictional narratives like a novelist or pulling direct subject matter from folk tales or history books, he opens himself up the most he ever has. It’s most evident on ‘12/17/12,’ a song based around Obama’s address following the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre.
More than anything, with ‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World’ the Decemberists sound like they're coming to love their place in it. They don’t try anything overly clever, but each song sounds fully realized and fleshed out to its fullest potential. And although it’s often sprawling and cinematic, you can’t help but get the sense that even if you stripped all the layers of backing vocals, strings and even the occasional horns away, the songs would still feel basically the same – like Meloy could play them alone on a bustling city street.
Exclusive Video: Colin Meloy Busks 'Make You Better' In Brooklyn