All hail and let the banners unfurl, Portland band The Decemberists have released their seventh album, What A Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. Those eclectic literary pedants are following up the critically acclaimed The King is Dead with bit of a departure from their norm. The new album is a hybrid of the literary obscurity many have come to expect mixed with new pop approachability and a more direct approach. Up until this point the band has been renowned for their obscure and polysyllabically word use, where a thesaurus and a dictionary at the ready are needed to understand what they were on about. They were background music for the Henry James reading crowd. A Terrible World… takes a step away from that world into something someone with only a four year college degree might appreciate. Or what others might call progress.
The 2009 release of The King is Dead was a first step away from the suggestions that the band was a bit too self involved with the literary word for their own good. The band was successful in gaining more public recognition by leaving the ethereal aesthetic heights of 2006’s The Crane’s Wife and 2009’s The Hazards of Love. Both discs required a PhD in analytical literature to truly appreciate. What a Terrible World… steers even farther into the middle road. A more approachable release than any they have ever created in the past.
That kvetching you hear are The Decemberists purists mumbling sellout. But I have a theory. Maturity and change have possibly made for dropping some of the prior pretense. The ability to write and perform more “catholic” creations while still satisfying their compulsion for brainy lyrics signifies a growing mastery of the songwriting craft. If few can understand what you are talking about, doesn’t it all become word salad? Or put simply what is the point of making enlightened music if few are listening? Rest assured The Decemberists are still displaying their amazing wordsmithery and storytelling but in a much more enjoyable context as they gain maturity and craftsmanship. You will still find the odd reference to Tennyson, the word fey, and grandiloquence throughout, without having to sit through a 10 minute opus on Jacobean Revenge dramas staged in a sea mammal’s stomach. I for one think that is a good thing.
Tucker Martine and the band produced the album. The band retains the same members this go round, with Colin Meloy lead singer and principle songwriter, Chris Funk guitarist and multi instrumentalist, Jenny Conlee on keyboards, piano, Hammond organ, accordion, Nate Query on Bass, and John Moen on drums. The group took a hiatus after touring The King is Dead. Meloy add a second son to his family and co wrote with his wife a second and third book of popular young adult fantasy. Jenny Conlee recovered from a breast cancer scare. She, Funk, Query and Moen recorded and toured with Portland Bluegrass group Black Prairie.
What A Terrible World… kicks off with the wry tongue and cheek song Singer Addresses his Audience. Meloy and Co. examine the relationship of a band to their audience. It illustrates the awkwardness that exists in that codependent relationship. Also discussed is the push back the audience gives when a performer dares to change. How prescient it that? It also addresses the accusations of sell out that fly as a group becomes more popular. The accompaniment is great and it really rocks out towards the end of the song.
Just to assure you that the band has not given up its tendencies towards literary references; Cavalry Captain uses Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” for reference on the song. The song is sung from the captain’s perspective. The protagonist speaks to the fleetness of life. Overall the track has a bright sound and some nice horn usage. Philomena has a bouncy 50’s feel but is also a very dirty innuendo filled song, an ode to oral sex. “All I wanted to do is to live to see a naked girl.” However if you not listening too closely the music would mislead you into thinking that nothing untoward is going on.
Make You Better is a full bodied rocker that harkens to REM’s “Losing My Religion”, the song is a great single and hopefully gets lots of radio play. Beautifully constructed and performed. I can’t get this song out of my head. Make You Better addresses the fact that someone else cannot solve your problems and the solutions are for you to find. This song is followed by the nostalgic Lake Song. This heartfelt evocative song aptly describes the joys and heartbreak of teenage years. Identifying the irremovable tattoo those few years leave on the rest of our days. Pure poetry, “I’m seventeen and terminally fey.”
Till the Water is All Gone is melancholy bluegrass song. The tune showcases Meloy’s great voice as he sings a vow to never compromise on a promise. The Wrong Year is a poppier song about Murphy’s Law. An examination of life when everything seems to be a day late and a dollar short and things just won’t go your way. Questioning why even bother to try, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is getting bored.”
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Carolina Low is a breathtakingly beautiful bluegrass tinged song. The track is very reminiscent of southern spirituals and gospel music of the low country region. It paints haunting visuals of poverty and is an immensely moving song. Better Not Wake the Baby is modeled after traditional Irish Folk songs with its charming refrain.
Anti Summersong is a response to an earlier Decemberist’s song, Summersong. It is a jaunty tune that wryly lists the drawbacks of winter. A fun folk song that states it is,” not another “sing along” suicide song, don’t everyone fall all over themselves.” When The Decemberists perform this at festivals I predict there will be much twirling on the green. Easy Come Easy Go and Mistral are also both engaging songs. Easy Come Easy Go is a great folk tune and Mistral is a poetic rocker with a great ragtime piano.
12/17/12 will inevitably be much written about. Meloy wrote this song as a memorial to the Sandy Hook Massacre. He attempts to come to grips with the horrors of the event juxtaposing it against the personal joy and peacefulness of his own life. The title of the album comes from a verse in the song, contemplating the wonder of the world and the terribleness of the world. The song is viscerally moving.
On A Beginning Song the band’s sense of humor shines forth as the irony of the title at the end of the album brings a smile. It is a joyful song about appreciating what you have, and is an up tempo end to the album. The band has mellowed and matured without losing the things that make them special. Life experiences and directness are replacing the layers of obscure ephemera of the past releases; it is a delightful and engaging collection.
A few critics have taken the band to task for making an album that is much more listener friendly than the rest of their discography. But as Meloy sings so wryly on Artist Addressing his Audience “We change, we change.” The danger of expecting any performer or band to never evolve and change is that they become fainter and fainter copies of themselves.
By not allowing The Decemberists to move from their prior high concept approach to something more accessibility, purist fans and critics would be damning them to stagnation. If music history tells us anything about great bands and artists it is that they need to go down other paths of creativity to continue to deliver great works. What a Terrible World… is a truly beautiful and evocative album, skillfully performed. It is without a doubt a worthy addition to their prior list of works. I give it an unhesitating 9 out of 10 .