Review by Roy Trakin.
The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (Capitol)
The Portland indie mainstays, who sound more like medieval troubadours than alternative icons, have returned after a four-year absence with the follow-up to their last album, 2011’s The King Is Dead, fully aware of shifting times and the need to evolve, as singer/songwriter Colin Meloy makes clear in the typically tongue-in-cheek opener, “The Singer Addresses His Audience”: “We know we belong to ya/We know you built your lives around us/And would we change?/We had to change some.”
Actually, the things that make the Decemberists so appealing are still here, the seemingly ancient plaints, the delightfully arcane language (“And I, seventeen and terminally fey,” “Sing me some eidolon,” “Mistral”), the fears of mortality underneath the flippant wordplay (“Till the Water’s All Long Gone,” “Easy Come, Easy Go,” the closing, ironically titled “A Beginning Song,” which ends with a flash of “bright light… all around me”).
Musically, the rich, 14-song eclectic collection still coheres as a whole, if not as conceptually coherent as 2006’s groundbreaking The Crane Wife or 2009’s The Hazards of Love. There’s the horn-driven funk-soul of “Cavalry Captain,” the sprightly British Invasion-meets-Brill Building pop of “Philomena” (“All that I wanted in the world was just to live to see a naked girl but I found I quickly bored”), the yearning Foo Fighters-meets-R.E.M. “Make You Better” (“All I wanted was a shimmer of your shine to make me bright”), the somber blues of “Till the Water’s All Gone,” the canny Neil Young “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” sound-alike “Anti-Summersong,” the twangy, Tarantino-esque surf bete noire of “Easy Come, Easy Go,” with its fatalistic refrain, “Cause you never really know when the whistle’s gonna blow,” and the evocative, banjo-driven Middle Ages tale of “Better Not Wake The Baby” (“Drown yourself in crocodile tears/Curse that god what made ye”).
That hidden current of doom runs through the ominous narrative of “Mistral,” about a strong wind that threatens to “blow it all away,” while the harp intro to “12/17/12” is a meditation on the album title, with its intimations of a world both “terrible” and “beautiful” in equal measures. Closing the circle by ending at the start, “A Beginning Song” climaxes with an ecstatic transcendent gesture that conflates nature and desire in one blinding flash.
Named after the final month of the year, it is more than appropriate that the Decemberists have produced, in January, one of 2015’s first notable albums.