The Decemberists

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

Capitol

Jan 16, 2015 Issue #52 - January/February 2015 - St. Vincent Bookmark and Share


Barely a minute into What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, Colin Meloy sings, "We know you threw your arms around us/In the hopes we wouldn't change/But we had to change some." Plenty of that opening track ("The Singer Addresses His Audience") is tongue-in-cheek, but the message is clear: don't expect any songs about infanticide, revenge, whores, barrow boys, or any of the other affectations that characterized The Decemberists' early work.

Terrible World is the band's first studio LP since 2011's The King Is Dead, and it reveals a band older, wiser, and less reliant on the quirks and gimmicks of earlier releases (see: "The Crane Wife" parts 1-3, "The Mariner's Revenge Song," The Hazards of Love, et al). In place of that are more intricate arrangements, more varied tempos and song structures, and subject matter befitting musicians now firmly in middle age.

The opening track could almost be read as a decade-later response to 2003's Her Majesty's "I Was Meant for the Stage"in fact, the entire album could be viewed as a counterpoint to that record. With Her Majesty, the group's personality and voice fully came together and the band hit its stride, focusing for the remainder of the decade on idiosyncratic themes and increasingly ambitious arrangements. The subject matter on the new albumincluding parenthood, marriage, and long-term relationshipsreflects an older band, with more mature themes and influences.

Like its predecessor, Terrible World draws heavily on folk traditions, whether it's the bluegrass roll of "Anti-Summersong" or the Irish tinge of "Better Not Wake the Baby." Elsewhere, "Till the Water Is All Long Gone" has a Southern vibe, while the melody and piano tinges of "Lake Song" could have been pulled straight from a long lost Nick Drake track.

There's plenty here that still feels familiar, though. Lead single "Make You Better" could have fit easily on The King Is Dead or The Crane Wife, and Meloy's wit hasn't gone anywhere"Philomena" lyric "All that I wanted in the world/Was just to live to see a naked girl/But I found I quickly bored/I wanted more" can stand head-to-head with any quip in the band's catalogue.

Perhaps the chief difference between new and old Decemberists is a shift away from narratives and characters in songs like "A Cautionary Song" or "The Bagman's Gambit" toward lyrics fueled by sketches, impressions and personal reflections. One isn't necessarily better than the other, but the perspectives in those story songs were a major part of the band's early appeal. They're unquestionably still the same band, butjust like many of their longtime listenersthey're all grown up now. (www.decemberists.com)

Author rating: 6/10

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Ryan Maresca
January 28th 2015
7:42pm

I really enjoyed reading this article.  You hve a wonderful style, and an incredible eye for detail. I was wondering if perhaps you had an email I could talk to you at?  Currently I’m trying to improve my writing when it comes to reviewing albums and live shows.
Thanks!
-Ryan