Words by Dennis Ruhlin
It’s been four years since The Decemberists have given us a full length album, and I’d love to say the wait has been worth it, but my momma said you should never lie.
What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is a borderline-too long, 14 track album that doesn’t travel half the distance their older albums did. Opening with “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” we immediately taste a more mundane, middle of the road sound from this well-established band. Gone are the stories from antiquities, gloomy staging, and quirky, if not entertaining, tales of yesteryear. Instead, we’re given a much more “middle-aged” and conservative album. This change makes sense. Frontman Colin Meloy has seen growth in his personal life which translates to the music. Themes like fidelity, struggles, parenting, and developing meaningful relationships shine through. I guess it’s part of growing up, and in the last four years, The Decembersits have definitely done so.
I’m somewhat partial to musical acts maturing and entering a new stage in their artistic lives, but with a band as unique as The Decemberists, it’s kind of a letdown. I’ve always enjoyed the whimsical tales weaved in and out of tracks across earlier albums. I find the more serious, introspective songs on the new album such as “Anti-Summersong” or “12/17/12” to be boring. It just doesn’t hold the allure of their previous work. It’s too gentle and safe.
The songs are still classic Decemberists ones (to an extent), as there’s plenty that feel the same. The folky, southern, vocal-heavy and beautiful sound they’re known for still exists, but it almost comes across as timid. What a Terrible World puts much more emphasis on individual tracks at the expense of the over-arching sound of an entire album. Some fans may enjoy it, while others may be left wanting more.
The album’s highlights are the energetic and simple “Calvary Captain,” the incredibly quick, bayou-based Irish jig “Better Not Wake the Baby,” and the 1950’s southern style, dusty-sounding “Easy Come, Easy Go.” These songs have a stronger story than other tracks on the album, reinforcing my thoughts on missing the older, story-driven music they used to make.
Overall, it’s absolutely worth a listen, especially after waiting four years. Just don’t expect anything on par with their earlier work.
‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World’
© January 20th, 2015
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