The Decemberists
What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
Capitol Records, B002212102, (2015)

CD Review by Hermon Joyner

It’s been four years since The Decemberists last put out the album, The King is Dead. Frontman Colin Meloy took time off to write a series of young adult fantasy novels called the Wildwood Chronicles with his wife, Carson Ellis, as the illustator. And the rest of the band took that opportunity to create a new band, Black Prairie, which has enjoyed some well-deserved attention. With their past efforts, The Decemberists have been known for their contemporary Americana sound that borrowed heavily from old English folk music forms, though The King is Dead introduced more rock motifs into the mix. With What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, The Decemberists seem to have begun looking closer to home for their inspirations and I really like the results.

Each song works by itself in this album without creating an overall theme, but there was a conscious desire to explore different eras and musical styles by Meloy. The first track, “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” begins simply with mostly acoustic instruments, but ends with production values closer to a rock power ballad as it explores musicians’ obligation to their fans. The second song, Cavalry Captain, takes its clues from 60s rock while channeling Tennyson. A visit to the 50s is next for “Philomena,” which is a coming of age ode to oral sex. Other tunes borrow from the sounds of 70s bands like Supertramp, with their penchant for honky-tonk pianos or in other examples, Celtic songs. And as might be expected, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is very literate and enjoys a fairly large vocabulary in its lyrics. I suppose it makes sense that Meloy became a novelist, because he obviously enjoys playing with language and that is one thing that I consistently enjoy about The Decemberists.

I found most of the tunes here catchy and pleasant. While it doesn’t tread much new ground for the band or challenge the preconceptions of the audience, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is a lovely collection of songs that I’ll probably revisit from time to time. There’s enough to satisfy the fan of The Decemberists and enough quality music to capture new fans. Recommended.

Song List: The Singer Addresses His Audience; Cavalry Captain; Philomena; Make You Better; Lake Song; Till The Water’s All Long Gone; The Wrong Year; Carolina Low; Better Not Wake the Baby; Anti-Summersong; Easy Come, Easy Go; Mistral; 12/17/12; A Beginning Song.