The DECEMBERISTS – ” What A Terrible World, What A Wonderful World “

Posted: February 26, 2023 in MUSIC
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The Decemberists What A Terrible World What A Beautiful World album cover 820

When The Decemberists returned in 2015 from a nearly four-year sabbatical, one couldn’t help but wonder how the time off might impact their live show as they toured in support of “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”. Anyone who saw one of those shows in support of the new album, though, likely had any of their concerns satisfactorily allayed—if anything, the band has come back stronger than ever. Recognizing a fan base that has missed their shows since 2011, Colin Meloy and co. have been performing a unique array of deep cuts and favorites from all over the band’s catalogue, including individual tracks from “Picaresque”, “The Hazards of Love”, “The Crane Wife”, “Her Majesty” and more, while still finding time to introduce listeners to the new material. Meloy is in fine voice throughout and simply seems to be enjoying himself more than in the few years leading up to their break, suggesting that perhaps the time off did exactly what it was intended to do, rekindling the singer’s passion for performance.

The Decemberists had nothing to prove when they released their seventh album, “What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World”, on January 20th, 2015. The Oregon-based folk-rock band, fronted by singer and go-to songwriter Colin Meloy, had amassed an acclaimed back catalogue of records dating back to 2002’s “Castaways And Cutouts”, earning a devoted following worldwide with their idiosyncratic brand of eloquent, literary lyrics and genre-crossing music.

The arty folk rock quintet from Portland, Oregon, have produced a surprisingly up-tempo collection of melodic pop songs, combined with their more classic storytelling lyrical inclinations. In the past darker tales (“The Crane Wife”) may have dominated, but here songwriter Colin Meloy leans toward the comic on “The Singer Addresses His Audience” and the celebration of sexual union that is “Philomena,” making this year’s model of The Decemberists its most commercially accessible yet.

Most of the songs for “What A Terrible World…” were written during the band’s hiatus after 2011’s “The King Is Dead”, and the recording process took on a free-form approach that relied heavily on collaboration. Meloy, along with guitarist Chris Funk, pianist (and multi-instrumentalist) Jenny Conlee, bass player Nate Query and drummer John Moen, simply gathered in the studio and let themselves play. “Often the band didn’t even hear my demos,” revealed Meloy adding that they “didn’t really know what songs we would be recording. We just showed up, all sat together in the room and I would throw some songs out there and we’d see what happened.”

Producer Tucker Martine saw that much of the album was tracked live, and Meloy has described the record as an enthusiastic reversion to old ways, after the pared-down joys of their roots-infused previous effort, “The King Is Dead”, which the singer had deemed “an exercise in restraint.”

While many of their previous releases were considered to be concept albums – such as 2006’s “The Crane Wife”, which draws upon the Japanese folktale tradition – “What A Terrible World…” was conceived as a radical change of pace. It was to be, as Meloy called it, “concept-free.” While there was no great unifying concept behind the album, a few similar themes echo throughout its 14 tracks. “What A Terrible World…’” title comes from a line in the penultimate song, “12/17/12,” written about the Sandy Hook school shooting. In the song, Meloy struggles to reconcile the monstrous evil in the world with his own personal state of satisfaction. This idea, of a binary world made up of both beauty and horror, can be seen under the surface of several other tracks.

“Cavalry Captain,” the jubilant second song on the album, evokes the famous Charge Of The Light Brigade, the fatal military maneuver that was immortalized in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, finding, in this last life-ending stand, a sense of valor.

The lyrics to “Philomena” are some of the dirtiest The Decemberists have ever committed to record. With backing vocals from Rachel Flotard and Kelly Hogan, the short track juxtaposes a jaunty, 50s-influenced melody with metaphors for female genitalia and risqué lyrics about oral sex. The tone swerves back towards the mainstream for the following track, “Make You Better,” a moving, pop-ish ballad that was released as the album’s first single.

“What A Terrible World…” keeps some of the band’s more bookish pretensions in check, but they are allowed free rein on “Lake Song,” a self-parodic song written from the perspective of a spurned lover. “And you, all sibylline, reclining in your pew/You tattered me, you tethered me to you,” sings Meloy, indulging his fascination with language.

“Anti-Summersong” is an even more direct engagement with the Decemberists’ past – written as a response to (and rebuke of) some of their flightier seasonal songs, most notably “Summersong,” which featured on “The Crane Wife”. Meloy had also sung about summer in tracks like “July, July” and “June Hymn.” “Anti-Summersong” includes a sweeping string section and some fine harmonica playing from Meloy himself.

The album is full of other highlights, including the traditionally folky “Carolina Low,” the minor-key “Better Not Wake The Baby” and the sea-shantyish “Easy Come, Easy Go.” But it is perhaps “What A Terrible World…’” final track, “A Beginning Song,” that resonates most deeply – a poetic, affirming reflection on some of the album’s themes. Listening to this, it is easy to believe that it truly is a beautiful world – all the more so for The Decemberists’ triumphant album.

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