Last week, The Decemberists released their newest album, “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.” It is the band’s first full-length album since 2011 when “The King is Dead” was released. The new album came out on Tuesday, Jan. 20, and immediately found success.
Within “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World,” The Decemberists finally seem to have found the balance between their playful language and storytelling and the band’s genuine musical talent. However, while much of the overly-literary lyricism has been toned down, the tracks are not made of a completely new sound. Practically every song has an echo of Decemberists-past under it.
This adaptation of the old within the new is particularly evident in “Anti-Summersong.” “Summersong” was a track on the album “The Crane Wife,” released in 2006, and a classic Decemberists song—the accordion was heavy like summer air and the lyrics explored death, a woman and the sea, arguably three of lead singer Colin Meloy’s favorite themes to write on. “Anti-Summersong,” the 10th track on the new album, directly rejects the band’s old habits, yet is still able to embrace the band’s quirky core. “I’m not going on just to sing another suicide sing-along song/ So long, farewell/ Don’t everybody fall all over themselves,” Meloy chants during the track.
This attitude of “We’re changing it up a bit, and everyone is going to be okay” is present throughout the entire album. In “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” the album’s opening track, Meloy sings in a soothing tone, “But we had to change some/ You know, to belong to you.” It is a wonderfully composed song to start the album off, giving long-time Decemberists fans reassurance that while some things have changed, the band is still going for it with the new album.
The beat picks up for the next few songs, as the lead track is followed by “Cavalry Captain,” “Philomena” and the album’s first single, “Make You Better.” These may be some of the best tracks on the album, with catchy rhythm and lyrics throughout all three. “Philomena” stands out as a hilarious yet earnest call-back to “Billy Liar,” from the 2003 album “Her Majesty, The Decemberists.” “Philomena” is sung by a pleading narrator who wants more than anything to go down on a girl whom he loves. According to Meloy, it’s “the dirtiest Decemberists song ever written.”
Songs like “Philomena,” along with many others on the album, benefit greatly from one of the changes that fans may notice when listening to the album. Rachel Flotarde and Kelly Hogan join the band for “What a Terrible World/What a Beautiful World,” harmonizing and singing backup vocals to Meloy. Their voices add strength and depth to Meloy’s complex lyrics. While the band has picked up other notable artists such as Sara Watkins to harmonize with them before, these two artists are definitely making themselves heard on the album.
Although Meloy’s lyrics are always diverse and creative, he still manages to surprise listeners at various points throughout the album. “12-17-12” is the album’s second-to-last song and is a tribute to the tragic shooting in Newtown, CT, that occured in 2012. Meloy opens the track with his harmonica, but soon breaks out into a clear mourning song about the loss of life after the shooting. It’s the first song of the band’s to be so politically charged and inspired by such a current event. The memory of the shooting eerily matches the band’s often visited image of dead children. It is also within this song’s lyrics that the album title, “What a terrible world, what a beautiful world” makes an appearance.
It’s a strong message set to a mellow tone. While a few of the album’s singles are more upbeat, most of the songs on the album play at a relaxed, casual listening pace. While some may think that this makes the album as a whole harder to listen to, the band’s amazing lyricism and wordplay always give the listener something to think about. “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” is a truly emotionally driven album. And it makes sense, after a four-year hiatus, that the bandmates would have a lot of pent up emotion to let out.
While the band’s 2011 album “The King is Dead” saw commercial success, hitting No. 1 on Billboard’s top 200 chart, “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World,” is a much better representation of what The Decemberists have to offer in terms of musical depth and creativity.
“What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” is currently No. 3 on the iTunes Alternative Chart. In February, the band begins their European tour in Dublin, Ireland. The American leg of the tour starts in their hometown of Portland, OR, on March 21. Much of the tour has already been sold out, including two April dates at the House of Blues in Boston.
The Decemberists are a band that continually changes their sound with each album. From an EP that consists of a single 19-minute track to a concept album, fans are always kept on their toes. There have been ups and downs, but as one listens to “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World,” it is clear that The Decemberists have hit a strong note.