Review: The Decemberists’ 'What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World'

The local indie kings return from a four-year absence with an infectious, eclectic album that reveals a band all grown up. Out Jan 20

By Cervante Pope January 15, 2015

After their four-year absence and some question around whether they might call it quits, the Decemberists begin their new album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, with a love song to their fans, letting us know that they need time to grow too, but won’t leave our side in the process. “We know, we know, we belong to ya/We know you threw your arms around us/In the hopes we wouldn’t change, but we had change some/You know, to belong to you,” Meloy croons in “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” his vocals slow-dancing with his guitar. With Jenny Conlee’s vocals and violin and John Moen’s drums joining the party, the song builds into a glorious chorus singing: “To belong to you/To belong to you/To belong to you.”

It’s a fitting start for an album that feels like it both pays homage to the different sounds of the 15-year-old band while also gleefully voyaging into new realms.

The novelty is immediately clear on the following two tracks. “The Cavalry Captain” takes the clarion horns of Picaresque’s “16 Military Wives,” but adds an almost disco drumbeat, turning it into the closest the Decemberists have come to a dance track. Then “Philomena” channels Doo-wop with a backing girl group singing “ooh waahs” and “lalalalalas,” as Meloy lyrically longs for Philomena and to see a naked girl. Given it’s the Decemberists, of course, it’s never so easy. “All I ever wanted in the world was just to live to see a naked girl. But I found I’ve quickly bored, I wanted more, I wanted more,” he sings, before talking of being a candle, a statuette, and the lashing loop of a leatherette—the Catholic markers of devotion to Saint Philomena, making “Philomena” the most classically Decemberist-style narrative on the album.

Another highlight of the band’s sonic explorations is the song “Easy Come, Easy Go,” which sounds like it could soundtrack a Spaghetti Western or Kill Bill (or any Quentin Tarantino movie for that matter).

The Decemberists Record Release Concert
Mar 21
Keller Auditorium
Sold Out
Which isn’t to say there isn’t plenty Decemberists’ fans won’t recognize. The album’s infectious first single, “Make You Better,” continues the band’s foray into more straightforward, less literary rock, and “Better Not Wake the Baby” has all the bluegrass-country twang of The King Is Dead, while addressing a state most the band members now find themselves in: parenthood. “Anti-Summer Song,” in marked contrast to the loving glee expressed previously in The Crane Wife’s “Summersong,” continues the theme of adulthood, as Meloy sings of growing out of those drunken nights: “I’m not going on, just to sing another summer song/So long, farewell/Don’t everybody fall all over themselves.”

So easily can an act that’s been around for over a decade grow stale in their niche noise, but such is not the case for the Decemberists. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World marks a more mature, refined band drawing both from wider influences and personal experience, even as it perfects its own unique sound.

The album comes out January 20, which Mayor Charlie Hales has officially declared the Decemberists Day.

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