The Decemberists have returned from the longest absence of their career with an album that is the perfect encapsulation of their evolution to this point. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World splits the difference of the sprawling, proggy The Hazards of Love and the return-to-our-roots folk-rock of The King Is Dead, but does not necessarily feel like a compromise between the two versions of the band. The combination results in an album that is filled with wonderful, catchy moments that are meticulously crafted and brilliantly arranged, making full use of the band’s instrumental prowess in creating gorgeous, digestible songs. In other words, no overlong multi-part epics, but no stripped-down basics either.
Many critics have emphasized the lyrics in their reviews, which is an understandable approach considering the band’s hyper-literate reputation were what brought fans on board in the first place. On What a Terrible World, the focus is less on 18th century peasant life or swashbuckling sailors, trading in allegory and metaphor for more direct commentary on personal topics like love and growing up, a noticeable shift in the band’s lyrical technique. This is why when Colin Meloy seemingly makes a song into meta-commentary as he does with the opener “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, the critics focus on lines about selling out for Axe commercials, instead of remarking on the fantastic build into the song’s climax, anchored by a thundering performance by John Moen. However, it is the band’s less-recognized musical prowess that carries the album and deserves more attention, with each member making vital contributions on a multitude of instruments.
Though the band doesn’t indulge in individual songs that are the kind of multi-genre exercises that characterized albums like The Crane Wife, they do stretch out over the course of the album. Sometimes the explorations misfire, as in the accordion swamp-stomp of “Anti-Summersong” that unfortunately brings back nightmares of that godawful Kongos song from last summer.* Thankfully, those moments are rare, and the listener can enjoy instead when The Decemberists recall the gothic Americana of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Howl era with songs like “Carolina Low”, or revel in the bright horns of the rousing “Cavalry Captain” that are reminiscent of Guster. Though these deviations are welcome, it’s when the band goes back to their wheelhouse of rousing folk-rock that the band truly shines, as they do on their first single–“Make You Better” may not only be the album’s highlight, but once the song hits that climax after the guitar solo, it may possibly the best moment of their career.
What a Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is a bit too long at fifty-three minutes, sagging at around the three-quarters mark, though considering their previous absence it is understandable that the band felt that they had to leave in as much material as possible. Despite the lull, the album still finishes with a flourish due to the touching “12/17/12” and the uplifting “A Beginning Song”, leaving the listener far from disappointed after that slight setback. What a Terrible World represents some of the best of The Decemberist’s late-era work–they have combined the instrumental adventurousness of The Hazards of Love while learning to rein in its potential excesses by keeping a song-based focus as they did on The King Is Dead. It may not seem like a risky move, but it was an incredibly tricky maneuver and The Decemberists pulled it off beautifully.
*It’s a damn shame that this is my first instinct to reference, considering I grew up in an area where zydeco was a significant part of the culture.