Music Review: The Decemberists, “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”

The erudite Oregonians’ first album in four years does not disappoint, even as the lyrics get more introspective.

The Decemberists, even as their popularity swells, have always been an acquired taste. Part of that is the nasaly voice of songwriter/frontman Colin Meloy, pitched — depending on the syllable — somewhere between an English schoolboy and Rob Reiner. The other part is their minstrel trappings: accordion, banjo, and harpsichord are prevalent, alongside lyrics about chimbley sweeps and beggars, sailors and soldiers. Their charm is in being a highly literary band; Meloy is a brilliant storyteller, and not just when he’s in sea shanty mode, or pulling from mythology and legend. (No one else has ever rhymed “falderal” and “chaparral,” as he did on Picaresque’s “The Infanta.”) That’s why they appeal to me, anyway.

So it’s somewhat surprising that “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” – their first LP since 2011’s brilliant, roots-y “The King is Dead” – doesn’t go their usual route; at this point, Meloy is as aware of his songwriting tics as we are, and takes a meta approach on a few occasions. In “Anti-Summersong,” (a response to “Summersong” from The Crane Wife), he croons “I’m not going on just to sing another suicide singalong,” while admitting in the rousing opener “The Singer Addresses His Audience” that “we know you built your lives around us.”

It’s a more personal album for Meloy than any other in the band’s discography: gone are the days when the Decemberists could crank out a ten-minute revenge jam set inside the belly of a whale; none of the 14 tracks here are longer than six minutes, and several are shorter than three. The longest is “Lake Song,” with a jangly groove that recalls their classic “On the Bus Mall,” similarly reminiscing about a young love lost amidst a changing world. On the other side of the spectrum is the cheeky “Philomena,” an early 1960s-era doo-wap that’s easily the raciest song in their catalog. But in between is standout track (and first single) “Make You Better,” where harmonies from Rachel Flotard and Kelly Hogan really make the chorus soar. In all three cases, Meloy seems to be writing from his own experiences, not those of his usually Dickensian characters.

This really comes home on “12/17/12,” the mellow folk ballad that gives the album its name. The date references the horrific shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and the song is written through the lens of Meloy’s recent fatherhood: “What a gift you can give me, here with my heart so whole while others may be grieving,” he sings. It’s an emotional climax both for the album, and for the arc of Meloy’s career; he’s spent the last few years starting his family, writing children’s books, and busking on corners, while the rest of his band released a standalone album as Black Prairie. (They also appeared as a group on Parks and Recreation and The Simpsons, so it’s been more of a “relaxation” period than a hiatus.)

But The Decemberists are back, and while Beautiful/Terrible doesn’t exactly signify a new direction for the band (there is still the obligatory shanty, “Better Not Wake the Baby”), there’s enough variety and intriguing ideas here to keep things fresh. In many tracks — like the pulsing, Robert Johnson-esque “Carolina Low” —  they carry over the roots-rock sensibility they began in “The King is Dead”; in fact, a few of the songs on this album were written immediately following that one. (I could do without the redundant “Easy Come and Easy Go,” which sounds cribbed from a Sergio Leone western but doesn’t mesh here.)

But the most interesting track might be “Till the Water’s All Long Gone,” a swampy fever dream in 6/8 time that — seems to be, anyway — about a tribe defending the fountain of youth, but was composed on a child-sized guitar while Meloy just tinkered around; in its final form, the solos from Chris Funk give it a Spanish feel, as it shuffles forward and back between B minor and E minor chords. (The Major A at the end of the chorus is pleasantly jarring, and part of me wished they held it another two beats. But the fact that I’m being this nitpicky should tell you how much I dig the song.)

Beautiful/Terrible brings us The Decemberists at their most mature; while it’s not top-to-bottom their greatest effort (that’s still Picaresque, with perhaps The King Is Dead running second), it was well worth the wait, and seems like it’ll be the kind of record that grows in esteem over time. It’s intelligent, complex, and altogether enjoyable, while answering any criticisms about over-written pretentiousness with heart.

Grade B+

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