The Decemberists: ‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World’ Album Review

Capitol Records
Capitol Records

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, is The Decemberists 7th album, and their first since 2011. Decemberists albums have often been concept or theme based – but the concept here is simple – there is no concept!

The Singer Addresses His Audience” is a slow-building opener and addresses the relationship between artist and audience. “So when your bridal processional / is a televised confessional..” is a key line in the songs lyrics, which touch on musicians feeling as if they are owned by their audience, when the artist needs to keep evolving, often against the wishes of their fans.

Cavalry Captain” is a very upbeat, string-driven song, with shades of REM meets Dexy’s Midnight Runners. An unlikely but strangely effective pairing! In the pre-digital age, this song would be screaming for release as a single. “Philomena” is a song of lost innocence and sounds like a late 1950s / early 60s standard, with lots of “ooh-ahh” backing vocals, heavy reverb and chopped guitars that are reminiscent of those bygone eras.

The album really kicks into gear for me with “Make You Better,” a stripped back, sad song that would be the highlight of any Decemberists album. The band’s singer-songwriter Colin Meloy intones “But we’re not so starry-eyed anymore” as the track builds to its powerful climax. “Make You Better” is a simply beautiful song.

Till The Water Is All Long Gone” is breaking new ground for the band, with a Laurel Canyon feel to the arrangement, and a restrained vocal performance. The addictive, nagging guitar line, deep acoustic bass and soulful backing vocals ensure that this is one of the tracks on the album that I find myself returning to time and time again.

The guitar and voice lament “Carolina Low” sits well with the track that follows, “Better Not Wake the Baby.” The traditional arrangement and choice of instruments (1870’s old skool!) makes the song sound like it could be part of the soundtrack to the much-missed HBO show Deadwood.

Anti-Summersong,” like the album’s opening track, seems to be addressed to the band’s audience, and is a call for tolerance of musical and lyrical change. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World closes with “A Beginning Song,” another statement of change and a positive, reflective way to end the album.

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World does not follow the template of earlier albums from the band – these 14 album cuts are more concise, with no “epic” tracks. The songs are also generally more acoustic in flavour, with little of the rock / progressive leanings displayed on The Crane Wife or The Hazards of Love. But if you want that sound, then listen to those albums.

Bands that stand still, or try to recapture old glories by recycling the same old ideas and sounds, inevitably end up on the nostalgia tour circuit. It’s clear with this latest album that The Decemberists are not afraid to lose a few die-hard fans at the expense of widening their sonic palette, and for that reason, they will hopefully continue to release music that excites and enthralls.

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World will be released by Rough Trade on January 19th 2015 in Europe and by Capitol Records on January 20th 2015 in the USA.