Four years after their last album, “The King Is Dead,” The Decemberists have returned with their seventh studio album: “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.” The first song on the record, entitled “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” perhaps best describes the album. Frontman Colin Meloy sings “We know, we know, we belong to ya’ / We know you built your life around us / Would we change, we had to change some”.
The Decemberists that appear on this album are not the same that made a 20 minute song about an ancient Gaelic folktale. There is no harbor lost within the reeds nor jetty caught in overhanging trees among the bones of cormorants on this album. Of course, none of that was present on “The King Is Dead,” either, which was a far more restrained album than any of their other works. So “The Singer Addresses His Audience” seems to be an explanation for their previous album and a word of caution for the rest of “What A Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.”
While it’s true that their newest album does not completely embrace their earlier sound, it does seem to find a medium between it and “The King Is Dead.” Songs like “Cavalry Captain,” “Easy Come, Easy Go” and “Carolina Low” at least have a taste of the antiquated storytelling that was so missing on “The King Is Dead.”
As far as the type of language to be found on this album, lyrics like “All sibylline, reclining in your pew / You tattered me, you tethered me to you” from “Lake Song” assure that Meloy has maintained his ability to cleverly manipulate the English language.
What does “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” present that’s new? For one, it has two meta songs on the track, or songs that talk about writing songs. It’s a quirk unique to this album that gives it a light-hearted tone, even if the songs themselves might be slightly self-deprecating.
“Philomena,” on the other hand, is the type of song that one might expect from The Decemberists. It is a playful ode to youthful sexual awakening told from the point of view of the youth. It is a funny and warming song, despite its slightly taboo subject matter.
Like usual, the focus on this album is not on a technically demanding musicality. The sound of the album is relatively simple when compared to the language of the lyrics. It is mostly straightforward picking patterns or strumming of the guitar, simple piano riffs, upright bass lines and generic drum beats. The harmonica that made its debut with “The King Is Dead” returns on some of the tracks, but to a much more restrained effect. Like everything else on the album, the sound of “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” is a mix of their old baroque pop and “The King Is Dead’s” americana.
For any Decemberists fans, their new album is a must listen. The Decemberists you knew haven’t returned, but they seem to remember their past better, and hey, at least they give an explanation. For those of you who have never heard of The Decemberists, “Picaresque” might be a better place to start to hear them at the zenith of their song writing capabilities.