The Decemberists – What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
The patron musical saint of English majors begin their seventh album by addressing their long-term fans, an interesting meta move considering the path they’ve taken to the top of the indie world. After building their bones on fey albums of British folk they hit Capitol Records with The Crane Wife, a triumphant burst of folk that bled out into prog epics modeled on the likes of Jethro Tull. They tried to expand even further on this and stumbled, putting out the rather muddled and meandering The Hazards of Love in 2009. 2011 found them changing up their sound, deliberately aiming for a stripped-down “American folk” sound on The King Is Dead. “American folk”, in that case, meant Neil Young and early R.E.M., but it worked to the extent that it became the band’s first #1 album. It alienated some long-term fans, however, since it was quite a departure from the days of “The Infanta” and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”. And THAT is where they begin this time around, on “The Singer Addresses His Audience”. Heavy stuff, although it’s a move that is almost expected now from Colin Meloy and Co.
Further in, they strike a balance between their two guidepost albums, The Crane Wife and The King Is Dead. The sound is overall closer to The Crane Wife, although without the twelve minute epics. “Calvary Captain” and “Philomena” are classic Decemberists tunes, the latter being a pretty typical extended Colin Meloy oral sex joke. Lead single “Make You Better” channels R.E.M. again, although this time it’s clear that they’re pillaging the band’s major label period instead – Automatic For The People as opposed to Murmur. Elsewhere there is a run of Appalachian-inspired folk – “Carolina Low”, “Better Not Wake The Baby”, and “Anti-Summersong” – that fits in well after the relatively drowsy pair of songs before them. “12/17/12” recounts Meloy’s feelings on the Newton tragedy in the guise of a gentle acoustic song and “A Beginning Song” ends the album in a way that harkens back to those Crane Wife prog swirls. It’s an album that takes a stand on what the band is, circa 2015, and it’s a lot better than it really has a right to be. It’s more personal than the first three albums, eschewing a lot of the sprawling storytelling that marked their early days, but it’s all the more compelling for it, in the end.