Album: The Decemberists – What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
By Jacob Evans
Released 19th January
Rough Trade Records
As soon as What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World begins, something seems wrong. The Decemberists, masters of storytelling, of hiding behind chimney sweeps, Japanese folklore and a nine minute revenge epic that climaxes inside a giant whale, are singing about… themselves? ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’ is the first time the band have ever written anything so direct, and it’s a jolting change, singer Colin Meloy singing “you know we had to change some,” a song aimed directly at the fans perhaps annoyed with their recent output – the enormous concept album behemoth The Hazards of Love was accused of being overlong, confusing, a messy sprawl as much as it was called a masterpiece of storytelling through music. Its follow up, The King is Dead, was the opposite – the band retreating into traditional middle of the road rock that sounded more like R.E.M than Picaresque, and the response was again mixed – either overly simplistic or a cut down, lean rock album. The Decemberists simply couldn’t win.
As a result of this, their hiatus, or perhaps Meloy’s recent novel writing, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is the sound of the Decemberists simply doing what they want. Largely gone are the characters, and in their place are songs about Meloy himself – he is “seventeen and terminally fey,” on the beautiful ‘Lake Song’ – easily the album’s standout song. Elsewhere, on ‘Anti-Summersong,’ he is declaring his intention to never play another “summer suicide song,” referring to their own fan-favourite, The Crane Wife’s ‘Summersong.’ However, the Decemberists have not entirely abandoned their literary past – as soon as the dust from the opener settles, a fanfare blares, and Meloy sings “I am the Cavalry Captain!” breaking into a classic Decemberists character piece, about the Charge of the Light Brigade. This is followed up with another character track, ‘Philomena,’ a plea for sex from a young man, tongue nailed to cheek. The music is again traditional indie rock, but with more of their folky flourishes from their earlier works, as on ‘Lake Song,’ and spirals across the genre – girl group backing vocals join throughout, and the album moves from full on anthemic rock in ‘Make You Better,’ to sea-shanty-esque menace on ‘Better Not Wake the Baby.’
Whilst it is hard to tell where this release places in their canon, and despite not breaking any musical new ground, with What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, the Decemberists have finally decided to be themselves, and in doing so have created another excellent album.