Review: The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

the_decemberistsGreatest hits albums always sound jumbled, juxtaposing tracks written at different points in an artist’s evolution, different eras in music, and different stages of life. The Decemberists’ newest release—What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World—is not a greatest hits album, but it has the same mishmash vibe. The Portland, Oregon, folk-rock quintet retains its musical versatility and commitment to saving the dictionary industry. But this time, they seem compelled to prove they’re doing it for themselves.

In the first track, “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, frontman Colin Meloy pines about the danger of selling out for fame. Its narrator, a singer in a boy band, admits, “We know we belong to ya / We know you built your life around us, and would we change? We had to change some”. The track evolves from a light acoustic number to a rock ballad with angry distortion, then adds a pseudo-Sgt. Peppers string arrangement. “The Singer” is the band’s disclaimer. It warns fans who jumped aboard after The King Is Dead, their folksy 2011 triumph, that they will keep making music they like, whether fans do or not.

Fear not: The album does have folk. And like all folk songs, “Till The Water’s All Long Gone”, “Carolina Low”, and “Better Not Wake the Baby” talk about sad people in sad situations. The saddest song, however, is the acoustic “12/17/12”—a reflection on the tragic Sandy Hook shootings. At that time, Meloy had a son in first-grade and another on the way. In the song, he questions how he could be so happy while others mourn. His conclusion is inconclusive: “Oh my God, what a world you have made here—what a beautiful world, what a terrible world”. Stripped of persona and gimmick, “12/17/12” is a rare, poignant glimpse into Meloy’s life.

The following and final track, “A Beginning Song”, carries a message of hope. The song’s give-peace-a-chance-style lyrics ask, “I am waiting, should I be waiting?” Unlike “12/17/12” it’s difficult to accept the song’s sincerity. The sudden didacticism feels out of place, and adds to the album’s “greatest hits” hodgepodge vibe.

There are a few retro tunes, such as the surf-rock “Easy Come, Easy Go” and a 60s pop piece, “The Cavalry Captain”, which is a sort of Tennyson-Tom Jones bastard child. And then there’s “Philomena”. Meloy has called this one “the dirtiest Decemberists song ever written.” The salacious song about sexual awakening mixes music from a 1950s soda fountain with lyrics from a biker bar. Its schoolboy narrator wishes Philomena would “open up her linen lap and let [him] go down”, promising he’d be her “lashing loop of a leatherette”. (I feel a swoon coming on.) The backing female vocals repeat, “Ooh Ahh”, adding to the song’s novelty and sleaziness.

The songs with staying power start with radio-ready “Make You Better”. If The Decemberists ever release a greatest hits album, “Make You Better” will certainly make it. The jarring guitar intro with Meloy’s enunciative vocals kick off this track about waning love. “But we’re not so starry-eyed anymore”, Meloy sings, “like the perfect paramour you were in your letters”. It questions how you retain individuality when, years into a relationship, so much of you is tied to another person with lines like, “All I wanted was a sliver to call mine / All I wanted was a shimmer of your shine, to make me bright”.

The song is so great that the band had to prove they don’t care with an ironic music video. The video is set in Berlin in 1970 and features comedian Nick Offerman with a German accent. You’d think they hired Jan Terri’s director, with worse results.

“Make You Better” isn’t the only standout. Another is “Lake Song”, a mellow reminiscence about being a teenage outsider who’s “17 and terminally fey”. The upright bass, piano improvisation, and syncopated strumming give this song a jazzy feel. Super-listenable “The Wrong Year” should be the next single and the soundtrack to every road trip. Chris Funk’s guitar riff repeats so many times, without sounding overused. “Anti-Summersong” presents Portland in summer. It also shows the band trying to downplay its past, labeling “Summersong” (from 2006 release The Crane Wife) “another suicide singalong song.”

Still, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is worth the listen. It probably won’t bring any new fans into the fold, but won’t force longtime fans to leave either. The album’s odd variety shows that The Decemberists are fighting for autonomy; they’re struggling desperately not to be pigeonholed, even though no one is trying to do so.


by James Figy

james_figyJames Figy has two cats, two rabbits, a coffee dependency, an amateurish collection of Duke Ellington LPs, and a degree in creative writing from the University of Indianapolis. His creative work has appeared in The Flying Island, Punchnel’s, and UIndy’s literary journal, Etchings.


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