In Brief: Abandoning the heavy-duty concept album premises of their previous efforts and throwing a lot of different musical ideas at the wall over the course of a sprawling, diverse record seems to have worked well for The Decemberists. I honestly can’t recall what I disliked about them before, but their latest record has seriously brightened my spring, and I probably owe it to them to revisit some of their older stuff as well.
Sometimes I decide early on that I don’t like a band, and then years later, I can’t remember what it was that I didn’t like about them. I did this disservice to The Decemberists years ago. Maybe it was Colin Meloy‘s voice, which I seem to recall thinking was kind of grating, but listening to him know, I honestly can’t tell what bugged me about it. Maybe it was the lyrics. They can be sort of macabre sometimes, but I’ve gotten into so many other musicians who do that thing from time to time that it seems unfair to single out this particular band for it. Maybe the high-concept stuff just went over my head? It seems unlikely, considering how much I was raving about Sufjan Stevens at the time. I feel like it must have been a good ten years ago. That’s how long it’s taken me to give them another try. A search for bands from the Pacific Northwest for a Spotify playlist I was making a few months back led me to “Down by the Water”, an R.E.M. homage from their 2011 album The King Is Dead. I enjoyed that track while understanding it wasn’t necessarily the band’s core sound. They had a new one due out not long after that, so I circled back around to What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World not long after its release earlier this year. My first listen was in early March, I think. Ever since then, I’ve had a hard time stopping.
Musically, this new record of theirs seems to check off all of the boxes in terms of things I look for in a good, sturdy folk/rock record. The instrumentation varies a great deal from song to song, centering around a core of acoustic guitar, violin, and a decent rhythm section, while making room for jaunty keyboards or twangy slide guitar or a world-weary harmonica solid or a snappy horn section, depending on the needs of the song. Fourteen tracks and nearly an hour’s worth of music makes the experience more immersive, and even if not every experiment works, the ones that don’t work tend to not stick around long enough for me to mind too much. Some of the longer, more engrossing songs show up in the first half of the record, surprisingly enough, but I’m so swept away by the woodsy, summery sound of a few of those that I don’t mind the band taking the scenic route. Even weirder is how several of the shorter, more urgent tracks appear in the back half. I can’t really complain about that, because it shows that The Decemberists are self-aware enough to notice where they’re getting a little too weighty and change up the mood and style to keep things interesting.
While I’m generally a fan of concept albums on paper, I know The Decemberists have downplayed that aspect of their craft on their last few records, so I can’t necessarily pinpoint a theme connecting most of these songs, aside from the very loose idea that they’re re-evaluating their own standing as celebrated musicians, asking if they want to be pinned down to the tropes exhibited by their early records and how exactly fans would react if they changed. They might get a little too self-referential in the process of figuring this out, but at least they can demonstrate a wry sense of humor about themselves and their fanbase. I also appreciate how Colin Meloy, ever the storyteller, is transparent enough to weave some of his own experiences, both from his youth and his current experience of balancing marriage and fatherhood with the life of a traveling musicians, into his lyrics. Especially where the lyrics lean heavily on nostalgia, I’m quite keen on the results. A few of these tracks remind me of the moment I first “clicked” with artists like Wilco or Iron & Wine whose music was more textured, intimate, and abstract at times than the poppier stuff I was used to before I got into them. It might be a cliche to describe this as an ideal “Summer Road Trip” album, but it sure seems to fit, so long as you take a break from the highway and let a few of these songs soak in during a long, leisurely walk along the shore of a lake or something like that.
Ultimately, despite its occasional lapses into fatalism or even downright bitterness, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World comes out on the more optimistic side. Most of this record just makes me smile. it’s not an insipidly happy record, but it’s one that emerges from the dark valleys of life stronger, wiser, and more confident to face whatever the future holds. It ends with, of all things, a beginning, and it may be that last dash of optimism that compels me to go back and restart the record time and time again. it could stand to be a more cohesive record, but it’s still likely to get name-checked as one of my personal favorites when the year 2015 comes to an end.
1. The Singer Addresses His Audience
I actually think it’s sort of funny that this record opens with a down-tempo tune and then later, it closes with an up-tempo one. It’s almost as if the two had switched places. But then I suppose it was important to this band to put this sort of tongue-in-cheek, self-referential ballad first. Colin Meloy starts off out on stage, all by his lonesome with an acoustic guitar, singing a tune that just begs for audience participation: “We know, we know, we belong to ya/We know you built your life around us.” He’s described this as “the lead singer of a boy band coming to terms with how everything in their life and career has changed”, but I think he’s sort of deflecting with that comment, considering that the music itself isn’t boy-bandish, and at one point he refers to a fan copying a hairstyle “that our drummer wore in the video”. (Boy bands don’t have drummers, last I checked. Maybe when they try to morph into “real” bands after they realize their fanbase is aging. Oh wait, that’s actually kind of brilliant!) I feel like it’s the groups who make “real”, “raw” music according to fans and critics that really get raked over the coals for situations like the following: “When your bridal processional is a televised confessional for the benefits of Axe shampoo”. (That sort of thing is more or less expected of boy bands from the get-go, isn’t it?) Despite my nitpicks, the band’s clearly having a lot of fun here, playing with the notion that “we had to change some, you know, to belong to you”. The way that the rest of the band shows up in the middle of the song – suddenly at first, and then leading into a rather un-subtle, electrified, anthemic rock breakdown at the end – seems to be a big middle finger to everyone who ever criticized a band for changing their sound, probably all the way back to when Bob Dylan first went electric. Depending on your perspective, it’s either an incredibly bitter and cynical move on The Decemberists’ part, or it’s genius. I come down more on the ‘genius” side, even if the sing-along at the end gets a little too repetitive for its own good. (Fun fact: Sing the words “to belong, to belong, to belong” over and over enough times, and eventually it starts to sound like “tube along, tube along, tube along”.)
2. Cavalry Captain
Now the show can really begin. Big drums and a horn section that sounds like something you’d have encountered on AM radio decades ago make this song instantly likeable. The melody here is just golden, and the big smile that came across my face the first time I heard this one was the clincher: I now knew that I had misjudged The Decemberists in the past, and I sorely regretted it. With that said, I have no idea if they’ve been this blatantly poppy on past records. I know they’ve written more than their fair share of songs with nautical themes, and this would seem to be the latest in that long line, with Colin simply declaring, “I am the cavalry captain/I am the remedy to your heart”. It’s so simple and yet I’m very curious as to whether there’s any deeper meaning to this beyond being the one at the helm of the ship and feeling awfully damn good about it. For all of the lyrical dissection and critical hair-splitting I’ve seen over this record, this appears to be the odd song that hasn’t generated as much discussion as most of the others. Pity, because it’s my favorite track on the record.
Speaking of golden melodies from innocent days gone by, the perky piano chords and dreamy “ooh-aah”s make this one sound like it came straight from a 50s sock hop or something. It’s adorable. And those sly rascals used it as the backdrop for what they’ve straight-up admitted is “the dirtiest Decemberists song ever written”. Not in the blunt sense that would get this thing tagged with an explicit lyrics sticker. But they’ve somehow found a way to be poetic and yet blatantly sexual at the same time. Whether it’s actually sexy is up to the listener, because it seems to be about a barely-pubescent teenager biting off more than he can chew as he invites a girl to “open up your linen lap and let me go down”, and yes, he’s talking about that kind of going down. The chorus is a little more blatant, remarking “All that I wanted in the world/Was just to live to see a naked girl”, amidst some of the catchiest female background vocals in the universe. (At times they remind me of Neko Case, which makes me wonder how on earth a band named The New Pornographers has never managed to write a song as, well, pornographic as this.) And yes, I realize he just used “girl/world”, perhaps the laziest rhyme in the world of songwriting, but somehow it adds to the misguided innocence of it all. That’s how the mind of an inexperienced young man works – you know from hearsay and perhaps a few dirty magazines shared in secret at the back of the schoolyard what things you want to try, but you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into or what “love” actually is beyond all the titillating activities. Anyway, this might be the one song that keeps me from putting this record on in polite company, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a perverse sense of enjoyment out of it.
4. Make You Better
The lead single from this album, quite surprisingly, isn’t one of the more compact, poppier ones. Which is not to say that it isn’t catchy or memorable – its melody might be the most robust of anything on the album (and I really have to compliment Colin on his vocal performance here – he’s good throughout the album, but he seems to hit the notes with a special amount of emotional oomph here). The band pulls off a deft balance between delaying the gratification of that chorus and finally giving it to us. The lead guitar is electric in this one, which isn’t The Decemberists’ usual M.O., but it contrasts nicely with the piano and the laid-back rhythm (which goes into overdrive for the chorus just to make sure they stick the landing). It still feels folksy even without the usual ingredients I’d expect. The lyrics are some of Colin’s most long-winded and difficult to unpack, and yet the overall mood of the song comes across immediately. He’s going into great detail about how much he loves someone, but his desire of her ultimately seems self-centered – he wants her to improve his life, and there’s a sense of lost innocence as time goes by, like he got what he wanted but it was a hollow victory, because it didn’t really make her a better person. This absolutely needed to follow “Philomena”, because while it’s a much more serious song in contrast to that one’s more jovial nature, it really drives home that notion that the “hero” can get the girl of his dreams and then have absolutely no idea what to do with the relationship in real life. She was just a goal to him, not really a person with her own hopes and dreams, and needs that he probably had no idea how to meet.
5. Lake Song
Did I mention that this record didn’t seem to have an overarching theme? At the very least, there’s an arc running through most of its front half, concerning youth and a gradual loss of innocence. It’s written all over the album’s longest song, which reverts back to more of a lighter, acoustic sound, but which is still brightened up a great deal by the piano and the light texture of the electric guitar, which tricks me for a moment into thinking this could be a lost track from Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky (a.k.a. the Wilco record I enjoyed a lot more than most of their fans did). Not that you’d ever confuse Meloy’s verbose lyrical style with Jeff Tweedy‘s more abstract, word salad approach, but there’s this moment where he takes a drag of his young lover’s cigarette and I figure it’s right up Tweedy’s alley. Smoking out on the far side of the lake where your parents can’t see what you and the girl from the next house down the long dirt road between you are up to is just one small part of the equation. There’s something about being “seventeen and terminally fey” that haunts Colin to this day, as if he wants to do a huge facepalm when he realizes what an awkward and idealistic young fellow he was, but yet he’s got those mental snapshots of those walks by the lake and those shared cigarettes and those sunsets dragging out into long, languid evenings, and he wouldn’t trade ’em for the world. The band has a light touch here, and yet the song never feels sparse or seems to drag out longer than it should, despite it being nearly six minutes long.
6. Till the Water’s All Long Gone
it’s funny – I’ve realized with with three tracks in a row all over five minutes long, the first six tracks actually comprise more than half the album, with the last eight being mostly shorter and more to the point. It makes the album peak early for me in terms of the cuts that I find to be the most spellbinding. Not that brevity doesn’t have its own charms, but when they come up with languid, melancholy songs like this one, I find myself wishing there was a real gut-puncher like this later on in the album. Colin strums this one out on a toy guitar – it’s almost got a ukulele-like quality to it, but the style of playing is more sparse, perhaps even “bluesy”, if a lone acoustic guitar can be expected to approximate such a feeling. The background vocals are hushed and a bit mournful, as if lamenting a secret that a man couldn’t keep. That secret may well be the fountain of youth, in a very literal sense, as a man swears up and down “I won’t betray our water”, only to find that some sort of thieves or invaders have stolen it from him. The thing he cherishes more than that is his daughter, and I get the sense that he’s watched her grown from a sweet young child into a beautiful woman as he remains frozen in time at the age he took the first sip, and perhaps all these years he’s kept that fountain a secret even from her, and now he’s cursed to watch her fall prey to the ravages of time. A lot more of this story is hinted at than actually explained, but the lonely folk-tale mood of it seems to get my imagination firing on all cylinders, for some strange reason. I can see some folks getting impatient with this one, but for me once again, it’s time well spent.
7. The Wrong Year
What I’ve decided to call the “back half” of the album opens up with this mid-tempo, accordion and mandolin-laden tune, which seems to be about a guy and a girl who want each other, but never at the same time. (In other words, every sitcom and soap opera couple intended by the writers to eventually end up together, but kept apart because nobody knows how long the show’s gonna last.) The metaphor for this will-they-won’t-they relationship is that “the rain falls on the wrong year”, as if their relationship is a crop that needs to be watered, but it’s either a drought or the seeds are drowned out in a raging downpour, I suppose. I haven’t completely figured out what’s going on here on a deeper level – the song is pleasant in passing, but I don’t tend to get as emotionally involved in it as I have with pretty much every other track up to this point.
8. Carolina Low
This was one of the last tracks written for the record (and I suppose there are worse things in the world than a band with thirteen mostly solid tracks ready to go for an album who decides they still need one more for posterity), and not that it’s bad, but it does sort of have that “tacked on” feel to it. Its most admirable quality is its use of slide guitar, which really stands out due to how sparse the song is otherwise. The slow finger-picking gives us the eerie sense of a duel about to go down. The lyrics don’t give me a whole lot of clues as to what a “Carolina Low” exactly is – there’s a boy from the “high country” who narrates the song, so I get the sense that he’s out of his element and some sort of conflict occurs. I can’t find any threads connecting it to anything else on the record, so admittedly I haven’t made as much effort with this one as I have with a few of the other tracks.
9. Better Not Wake the Baby
This tasty little morsel of a song proves that good things can come in small packages. Like the baby it describes, it’s pint-sized (not even two minutes long!), but it knows how to raise hell. Over ominous accordion, organ, and banjo, the band bangs out an unholy cross between bluegrass and sea-shanty, with Colin saying in the most flowery words he can muster that you can pine for your lost years all you want, and you make make all the racket you want, but you better not do it within earshot of this constantly needy little human being who I just managed to get to sleep, or else there will be hell to pay! This one oughta make any new parent smile. (As long as you don’t play it for them while their baby is actually asleep, of course. It’s kinda loud.)
Here’s where the self-referential lyrics might get a bit too smarmy for their own good. Jenny Conlee (a multi-instrumentalist whose importance to the band I really can’t overstate) quickly impresses me with an old-timey fiddle riff at the beginning of this song, and the light-hearted rhythm of it leads me to expect another fun sing-along, which is sort of what we get, but it’s a sarcastic one that sort of ridicules the audience. Maybe not all of us. Just that segment of the audience who heard this one specific song called “Summersong” from the band’s 2006 record The Crane Wife, and decided they liked it so much that all they wanted to hear the band do was crank out more songs in that exact same style, more or less. I may be at a disadvantage, being new to the band and all, but has this really been a thing? Maybe this is the “My Iron Lung” to their own personal “Creep”, for all I know. But it sort of takes the air out of the room when they not only insist, “I’m not going on just to sing another summersong”, but then they basically imply that those folks oughta just up and leave: “So long, farewell, don’t everybody fall all over themselves.” That’s the point where it sounds like they could be making more out of this than it really is. I’ve been to enough live shows over the years to become really irritated with the “fairweather fans” of certain bands who just want to hear the one or two big hits they know from the radio, but usually the bands themselves are bigger than that. They might subtly try to point fans toward their newer or more obscure material by giving the “greatest hits” a rest on certain tours, but I think it’s bad form to act like there’s no place for those folks in the audience at all. The corny vocal echoes that show up in the second chorus only serve to intensify the bad taste this thing leaves in my mouth. it’s fun to listen to on a superficial level, but as soon as I think about the lyrics, I start to hate the band just a little, and that’s a bummer when I just got through finding all these new reasons to like them.
11. Easy Come, Easy Go
Speaking of bad tastes, this one leaves a much more bitter one behind, basically existing for no other reason than to say “Death is cheap and random, y’all”. It’s got sort of a mysterious, surf guitar sort of vibe, but without enough speed or syncopation to really bring out the macabre fun implied by such an approach. You know how I don’t like the cheap songwriting device of introducing one or two stock characters per verse only to do nothing with them after that? This song fits the template to a T, bringing up nameless hes and shes (the “Limber Jack” in the first and last line of the song notwithstanding) only to off them in the very next line, sometimes in rather gruesome ways, all to make the point that “You never really know when the whistle’s gonna blow”. And the moral of the story is…? It’s a two-minute song, so there isn’t really time for one. That’s three songs in a row that have hovered around the two-minute mark. Jeez guys, where’s the fire?
OK, so the band’s back to taking their time here. I almost immediately regret asking them to do that, because they’ve settled back into mid-tempo, sort of electric, but not terribly energetic rock ballad mode, and the song seems to just DRAG. ON. AND. ON. because of it. The lyrics here are just sort of vaguely miserable. Somebody’s trip to France has ended with a wrecked rental car in a smelly seaside town, and he’s had enough of it and he wishes the wind could just blow him and his proverbial sails back to America. (Well, there’s that nautical theme again, at least.) You could probably wring an amusing story out of a sad vacation fail like that, but the approach here is entirely humorless, leading me to wonder what the point of this whole shaggy dog story is. Writing what you know, at least in this case, isn’t half as entertaining as making stuff up off the top of your head. Honestly, as much as I appreciate a band trying to give us a longer and more varied record (because it does give them more room for the occasional slip-up to not hurt the album as much overall), I do think you could cut this track and the previous one and the record overall would be no worse for the wear.
One reason why I think the musings on death seeming to be pointless and random in “Easy Come, Easy Go” weren’t really needed is because this song already alludes to it in its title, which is mere days after the date of the Sandy Hook School shooting in Connecticut, a horrendous event that left a lot of folks wondering how there could be any justice or meaning in the universe after a madman shot and killed over 20 people, most of them small children. The song doesn’t directly discuss these events – and i think it’s wise for Colin not to try to capitalize on the event like so many 9/11-themed songs did a while back. He’s just trying to make sense of the awkward juxtaposition between others grieving and his life actually being relatively stable and happy for a change. His kid’s alive and healthy. He realizes in this calm, lucid moment that it’s one of the biggest gifts he could have ever received. And he’s got another one on the way, which he describes to his wife as “This cannonball in the bosom of your belly”. It’s sort of a cute metaphor at first glance, but then I realize that cannons are explosive, destructive things, and it’s almost like he’s aware that mass murderers were once innocent babies in their mamas’ bellies, too. Again, it’s one of those songs that implies a lot more than it actually says, and as a result it’s powerful in its starkness. Just an acoustic guitar and a sad harmonica, the simplest tools of the trade, are all that’s needed here, and while that may make the song rather pedestrian on a musical level, it’s also a malleable one that will be seen differently based on your own outlook on life. The title for the album comes from this track, and for good reason – it’s staring all of that beauty and all of that terror right in the face, all at the same time.
14. A Beginning Song
So, we’re back to that beginning I alluded to earlier. You know, the one that comes at the end. it’s a cautiously optimistic song, one that seems to pull itself together after all of the grief and awe and general contemplation, one that dares to ask, “Should I be hopeful?”, and seems to imply a resounding yes. Like the track that opened the album, it pulls off a nice balance between “Lone man with a guitar” and the noisy band that backs him up, but this time the noise of everyone chiming in is more celebratory, more colorful, as opposed to the flippant tone they took at the beginning of the record. There are times when I think the cautious pace of this one needs to be kicked up just a few bpm’s, just enough to reach that tipping point where it’s fully confident and that caution is thrown to the wind. There are other times when I think it’s exactly right to be a little uneasy, to sound like it’s asking permission to bask in that undeserved, and yet freely given, redemptive light. Either way, it’s a strong closing track, not quite as big of a home run as my favorites from earlier in the album, but certainly one that finishes it off in grand style and leaves a smile on my face as its final, huge, resolved chords fall silent.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Singer Addresses His Audience $1.25
Cavalry Captain $2
Make You Better $1.75
Lake Song $1.75
Till the Water’s All Long Gone $1.50
The Wrong Year $1
Carolina Low $.75
Better Not Wake the Baby $1.25
Easy Come, Easy Go $.25
A Beginning Song $1.25
Colin Meloy: Lead vocals, guitars, bouzouki, harmonica
Jenny Conlee: Organ, accordion, melodica, piano, keyboards, synthesizer, backing vocals
Chris Funk: Guitars, mandolin, pedal steel, various instruments
John Moen: Drums, melodica, backing vocals
Nate Query: Electric and upright bass, cello
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: