Review: The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

TerribleBeautiful_coverDespite my love for the band, I can’t really say I was hotly anticipating the latest Decemberists album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. In the early- to mid-2000s, this Portland quintet penned three of my favourite albums of the century thus far regardless of genre, Castaways and Cutouts, Picaresque and The Crane Wife – albums bursting at the seams with grand and layered instrumentation, unique song topics and excellently-crafted lyrics, infectiously catchy melodies and choruses, and a very talented, odd and instantly-recognisable lead singer in Colin Meloy. These three records (and to a lesser but still significant extent their sophomore LP Her Majesty the Decemberists) really put the band on the map in underground music as one of its finest and most promising rising stars.

However, I haven’t really been head-over-heels for a Decemberists album since The Crane Wife in 2005, but not for a lack of trying. 2009’s The Hazards of Love was by and large their most ambitious album, but easily their most impenetrable album as well, a concept record with an intricate storyline that was hard to follow yet completely necessary to know to fully get a grasp of what was happening all throughout the record, and after giving it multiple listens, I ultimately decided I couldn’t be asked. That said, musically, The Hazards of Love still felt like it was a Decemberists album, which is more than I can say for their follow-up LP The King Is Dead, released just a few years ago. The band, in their prime having a winning distinct sound that drew a lot of inspiration from folk rock, indie pop, chamber pop, and Irish folk music, did a complete 180 on their formula and instead took their sound in a direction that felt a lot more indebted to Americana and alt-country music. Not inherently a bad idea, as I quickly tire from a band releasing the same album over and over again, but I felt like the band’s serious chops as songwriters were out to lunch on this LP, and instead they just opted to write uninteresting commercial Americana and ultimately coming off as a far less compelling Iron & Wine.

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, the Decemberists’ first album in four years, continues the band’s The King Is Dead tendencies of focusing their sound on anything but the formula that won over their well-deserved fan-base in the first place. However, I personally feel that they’re at least diversifying their sound a bit more appealingly on this new LP. While one or two deep cuts here show the band sort of channeling the subtle, yet detailed indie folk sound of their first two records, something they haven’t done in years, a bulk of this album is spent experimenting with contemporary indie rock, stripped-back singer-songwriter music, jangle pop, and in very sparse moments, a bit of adult album alternative music from the likes of Jewel or Sheryl Crow. Although this new change in direction does result in some of the band’s best songs in a decade, far too much of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World sadly feels just as cyclical and safe as its predecessor.

People that have been following this band for a while knew they were going to be getting another surprise in store on this new album when its lead single dropped late last year, “Make You Better”, and if every song on What a Terrible World wound up being as exciting and show-stopping as this track, I think this could’ve been an album that stands toe-to-toe with the band’s mid-2000s output. When this song first dropped, I appended it with the label “Her Majesty the Suburbs”, and still after hearing it in the context of the rest of the album, I still think it’s a fitting descriptor. This track feels like massive The Suburbs-era Arcade Fire worship, and everything about it sounds like that album’s title track. Whilst listening to the chorus of this song, I find myself mentally singing, “Sometimes I can’t believe it. // I’m moving past the feeling…” Despite its obvious influences, however, this is by and large the best song the band has released in several years, and is the best lead single they could’ve pulled together, a very sharply-crafted indie rock song with great guitar melodies, a fantastic catchy chorus, nicely-harmonised vocals over the bridge, explosive instrumentation, and a wonderful sense of progression to it. Aside from being one of the best singles of last year and this one, this track stands out from the rest of the track listing here for one major reason: it’s one of the only tracks on this album I see most people coming back to even one month from now.

Though I do sense a certain amount of variety among the 14 tracks here, a bulk of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World just comes off feeling kind of homogenous and plain, almost like these tracks were written to merely be either coffee shop background music or distilled, textbook indie rock to inconsequentially pass by in between millionth daily plays of “Take Me Out” and “Feel Good Inc.” on your local alternative radio station. Take the jangle pop-influenced track “Philomena”, for instance. This song is alright – it has some decent strummed electric guitar and a sturdy drum beat with a nice chorus that progresses as it’s repeated – but there’s nothing about this track that would make me think that it was the Decemberists that wrote and are performing the song, outside of Colin Meloy’s still nasally and outgoing voice. I feel the same way about the song “Easy Come, Easy Go” towards the back-end of this LP, which has a distorted guitar lead that almost feel post-punk revival-influenced, with a twangy Mumford & Sons-esque guitar solo towards the end. Again, it’s not bad, but it feels like the band is trying to sound like anybody but themselves. Even if you hated what the Decemberists were doing between 2002 and 2009, you could at least tell them apart from their contemporaries, you knew a Decemberists song when you heard one, and this to me is sort of a loss of personality.

I’ve heard many people praise Colin Meloy’s presence as a frontman on What a Terrible World, but I personally only feel like that’s happening because most of the instrumentation on this LP is so wallpaper and so flavourless compared to the band’s most defining material that it’s really the only thing to gravitate towards. And that would be totally fine if the lyrics and vocals were as good and as attention-grabbing as they have been in the past – Castaways and Cutouts, probably my favourite release from the band, was mostly so because of Colin’s magnificence as a lyricist, singer and storyteller – but What a Terrible World features what I think are some of his least fleshed-out and least topical sets of lyrics yet. Most of the songs on this LP are love songs, with a lot of basic lines about being “the remedy to your heart” and “needing you to make me better”. Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I don’t find even a shred of the same depth, meaning and emotional reaction that I get from songs like “Red Right Ankle” or “Clementine”. A lot of the lyrics on this album wind up feeling as shallow as any quasi-meaningful folk-pop singer-songwriter you’d hear if you walked into a Starbucks, though to Colin’s credit, I’ve never heard the Ed Sheeran’s or Passenger’s of the world use words like ‘prevaricate’ or ‘sibylline’ in their lyrics. It’s just kind of sad to hear a musician whose lyrics once provoked vivid and striking imagery like a stillborn baby lodged inside a flue in the year 1842, or a beautiful crane with feathers and thread soft as fontanel, throw out lyrics like “And you, my sweet flower, and how you grow more sweet by the hour…”

While listening to several tracks on this album like “Lake Song”, “Carolina Low” and “Till the Water’s All Long Gone”, I was stuck dumbfoundedly wondering why the band was taking it upon themselves to have a contest to see who can out-boring each other, but then when the track listing brought me to “Anti-Summersong”, it all made perfect sense to me. This is one of the shorter tracks on the LP at just over 2 minutes, and is, in a sense, a follow-up and antithesis to the track “Summersong” off of The Crane Wife, but doesn’t really have many similarities topically. Lyrically, the song is about Colin Meloy wanting to move on from his older ways, not wanting to sing another “sing-along suicide song”, wishing to “mature” his sound past some of the cheesy lyrics and musicality on their previous material, and with that, we have another case of a band losing their creativity, ambition and distinction to just sound like everyone else and not sound all that good doing it. The same thing happened with Arctic Monkeys on their AM record, taking their interesting and fun sound and completely sanding off any semblance of emotion and humanity and just churn out one song after another with all of the drive of a robot with its personality synthesis set to the “Lack Thereof” setting, all under the pretense of “maturing” their sound. While What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World isn’t as jaw-droppingly effortless as that record, it’s equally as blasé and faceless.

“Anti-Summersong” is probably my least favourite track on the album, just because it’s hard to ignore context when listening to it. Colin sings about not wanting to sing any more songs of this style, but the band’s own “Summersong”, as well as the album it’s off of, has a million times more substance and personality than pretty much every song on this LP. It’s a pretty sad commentary when a band writes and performs an entire song about not wanting to continue writing songs that made them not only great but memorable and distinct, and then puts it on an album where they spend 95% of their time hanging around in the doldrums of offensively simple indie folk and indie rock. Speaking as a minor, if growing up and maturing means suddenly having all the creative motivation of a creaky, out-dated dot matrix printer with an inkless cloth ribbon, then I have no idea why anybody would ever want to consider themselves an “adult”.

I would like to talk about the positives of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, though, because there are some. For one, I think this LP does have some standout tracks. I’ve already mentioned the track “Make You Better”, which I love, but also the track “Mistral” I think is pretty good, with its soaring choral vocals, guitar layering, as well as a pretty solid harmonious chorus. And though What a Terrible World is a very spotty record, I do think it has a nice flow to it, and it does seem to have the bigger picture in mind, putting the LP’s two most climactic and progressive tracks, “The Singer Addresses His Audience” and “A Beginning Song”, at the beginning and end of the album, respectively. Both songs are good, too, with the former being a sort of bare indie folk song whose apex towards the end is a very epic rock section, while the latter feels like a Shooting Rubberbands at the Moon-era Edie Brickell-inspired jangle pop track with brief electronic sections that cut in and out of the background that sound almost folktronica-esque. And while the aforesaid “Philomena” isn’t a song that I particularly like – it just kind of sounds like an awake Mac DeMarco sans the sharp songwriting and moan-along choruses – I do give Colin Meloy props for writing a song about something I’d never even dreamt of him singing about: wanting to go down on a girl. It’s probably the most bizarrely tasteful song about eating someone out you’ll ever hear in your lifetime, and just the fact that there is now a song by the Decemberists of all bands whose lyrics are explicitly about pearl-diving is one of those little things that make me happy to be alive.

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is definitely a cohesive album, with high production value, some solid performances and a few genuinely good and worthwhile tracks on it, but as a fan of this band, I’m just underwhelmed and disappointed that this is probably the direction they’re going to head in on forthcoming records when I know they can do so much better. For every good song on this album, there are at least three completely forgettable and nondescript ones, and as a beginning-to-end listen, between the just-okay stylistic mimicry, the shockingly-mediocre lyrics and song topics, and molten mounds of meh like “Lake Song” and “12/17/12”, What a Terrible World is only slightly more entertaining than blank-facedly staring up and counting the amount of marks on a painted ceiling. With how heavily this album is being marketed, maybe it’ll reach and please ears of people whom have never heard of the Decemberists, and they’ll hopefully wind up perusing through their endlessly stronger back-catalogue afterwards, but as for me, I think I’ll take away “Make You Better” and “Mistral” and drink to forget the rest of the record.

So that’s What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. If only we’d gotten insight into the latter half of that claim.

Your friend,
Jess Casebeer

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