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Review: The Decemberists Scale Back on ‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World’

7
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: January 20, 2015
Label: Capitol

The Decemberists have always made music to fill their own unique sociopolitical bubble, which is to say, hyperliterary liberal arts degree-holders with at least one jar of artisanal pickles in their pantry. They’ve long focused on telling escapist stories of the ills of ancient society and hiding behind their anachronistic obsession, rather than being present in the real “terrible world” that most of us live in. But with What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, the Portland natives are learning to look forward, not backwards, for inspiration.

The band’s seventh studio album is as verbose and folksy as the Decemberists are expected to be, but gone are the ballads to heroes and monsters out of an 18th century children’s book. Singer-songwriter Colin Meloy casts off the passive voice of albums past and takes a more active place in the center of his songs. Sprawling 12-minute epics have been traded for concise, immediately satisfying songs that don’t require a dictionary to decipher.

Opening with the literal “A Singer Addresses His Audience,” Meloy takes a moment to reassure the band’s longtime fans as the band emerges from their most recent hiatus: “We know you threw your arms around us / In the hopes we wouldn’t change / But we had to change some / We know to belong to you.” It’s a cheeky nod to the band’s diehard fans, and a promise that their concerns are valid, but unnecessary — the album chugs along, delivering 14 songs that show restraint while still being immensely catchy.

Tracks like “Till the Water Is All Long Gone” and “Carolina Low” show Meloy capitalizing on his less bombastic inclinations, making his voice softer and more plaintive, unadorned by flourishes of a glockenspiel or accordion. The single “Make You Better” is probably the most straightforward rock song on the album, lyrically and musically; even with all the expected adornments stripped away, there is still that essence of wistful melancholy that runs deep in this band’s oeuvre.

Meloy’s flair for using obscure literary and historical allusions and imagery hasn’t been surpassed and it’s undoubtedly still present — you’d expect to hear songs like “Better Not Wake the Baby” being drunkenly sung by Civil War soldiers on the eve of battle. The passing glimpses of stomping feet, cannonball fire, banjos, and mentions of crocodile tears and painted ladies are practically de rigueur for a Decemberists album. More than a decade on, this band is peeking out from behind the veil of obfuscation in an effort to stay relevant; they haven’t totally abandoned the whimsy and fantasy, but they’ve toned it down — almost to save themselves.