Most albums by The Decemberists have a strong narrative running through them (see The Hazards Of Love for example), but for this record, the band apparently let the songs develop into whatever forms seemed right. Consequently, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is The Decemberists in a different mode: should be interesting!
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This is folk rock we’re talking about, so let’s get one our priorities in order: between the olden times phraseology and occasional decision to skip out on verbs, the lyrics sheet for ‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World’ is one of the Decemberists’ richest. It chooses prosaic stories and descriptions of life over fragmented poetry, and it’s all the better for it. Opener “The Singer Addresses His Audience” uses the band’s slowly erupting country rock to tell a meta Pop Music story that wouldn’t be out of place on Okkervil River’s industry-critical ‘The Stand-Ins’. It’s a cynical, foreboding tale about wanting to impress your audience at the same time as wanting to reproach them. “Philomena” is the kind of phenomenally ridiculous song only this band could sing to us, with Colin Meloy talking about his sex life as if it was a costume drama (“Open up your linen lap and let me go down”? Christ. Fairporn Convention). With the idea in mind to just make songs, not weave narratives, the band are able to turn their songs into amusing and often touching vignettes; on “Till the Water’s All Long Gone”, he opens by telling us “They came down from the mountain”, as if we already know who he’s talking about. It feels seamless, even though we haven’t been following a concept.
Then there’s the music, I suppose, which is delicate, ornate and impressively crisp: the Decemberists have never made a badly produced record, per se, but this one is as panoramic as you can make acoustic country sound. Everything fits into place seamlessly, with the organ synth not played overloud and the melodies underneath Meloy always quietly lilting. “Lake Song” sounds ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ level beautiful, a twilit, echoing ballad sprinkled with piano that just lets heartbreak pore out in a few different circumstances: through the snoring electric guitar and urgent strums, the song sounds stuck between grief and acceptance. “Till The Water’s All Long Gone” continues “Lake Song” and its whispered nadir, bringing in mandolin and a bassline that moves like a pebble fleeting over water.
The Decemberists hit the right kind of stride in 2012 with ‘The King Is Dead’, a sparse and short record that did a lot with a little. This one is more ornate, like a less meandering and much softer version of their more thematic records ‘The Hazards of Love’ and ‘The Crane Wife’. It ultimately feels too long and showy to remain as modest as it wants to sound. The record is front loaded with Decemberists good times, and while the spirit wanes towards the end -- or occasionally gets a little too schmaltzy with the country, with “Anti-Summering” sounding quite the Dixie Chicks ditty -- ‘What a Terrible World’ is ultimately a triumphant record that freewheels with the best of them. It’s nice to have the nicest band back.
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