What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
Has a full decade really flown by since Picaresque came to define the antique folk-rock fancy of The Decemberists? Apparently, band chieftain Colin Meloy has taken notice. So wearily consumed with his fan base's seemingly stagnant estimation of his work, he opens the Decemberists' new album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, with a nearly apologetic open letter titled The Singer Addresses His Audience. It's a double-edged confessional that acknowledges hero worship ("we know you built your lives around us") and the need to break from it ("but we had to change some").
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The pining of the modern pop star is about as irksome as the pleading of a bailed-out banker. But that isn't what Terrible World is about. Now entering the ranks of rock elders after an extended hiatus during which Meloy established himself as a successful and prolific author of children's books, The Decemberists pick up where 2011's The King is Dead left off. The focus is again on songs that operate as complete pop vignettes as opposed to parts of operatic, prog-infused goliaths like 2009's The Hazards of Love. But the new record is not as summery as The King is Dead. Instead, Meloy modestly widens the band's folkish landscape while offering story lines that are both heroically hopeful in their sense of pop fancy and sobering in their real-world awareness.
Early on, we are almost led to think that Terrible World will be an exclusively retro affair, with the neatly orchestrated '60s pop of Cavalry Captain and Philomena. But the clouds begin to gather during Make You Better, with chiming piano and guitar gliding under a saga of punctured romantic ideals ("we're not so starry-eyed anymore"). The Wrong Year ups the attitude as a love song of purely misplaced sentiments ("she wants you but you won't do") draped by a bittersweet melody that you will be humming for weeks.
Lyrically, the centerpiece tune is 12/17/12, a vision of impending parenthood in the wake of the Sandy Hook killings that provides the album with its title. Sung stoically as a Neil Young-like rumination, the song is essentially a requiem ("Oh my God, what a world you have made here") that is followed by the album-closing A Beginning Song. The latter's flood of love and light illuminates the terrible beauty at work throughout these songs.
There are loads of other delights as well, including the noir beach-party twang of Easy Come Easy Go and the chanty-style domestic guidance yarn Better Not Wake the Baby ("gouge your eyes with a butter knife but you better not wake the baby").
As merry and as morose as ever, The Decemberists have not lost their knack for toasting simple human unrest with such enriched pop pageantry.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic