American indie rock band The Decemberists are storytellers: whimsical, historical, light-hearted but above all clever storytellers. With fourteen years of musical existence under their belt, the five-piece have honed the craft of formulating music that dances between moments of embracing the present and all it has to offer, and bittersweet nostalgia for the past. Fans and critics alike have grown to love their kitschy lyrics and references to historical and mythical legends – it set them apart from a world full of mass produced pop. Their music was significant and had purpose.
What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World sees The Decemberists explore a new dimension of their sound with poetic, folk inspired Americana and a hint of their trademark cheekiness.
The coming of album number seven What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World prompted people to question the relevance of these musical veterans and whether their stamina could stand another full length release. It’s also a common concern with fans who have stuck around from the humble B-side demos to more admirable studio releases that the artist will lose touch with who they once were.
This release delves into folkish territory, a version of stripped back rock that gives off an organic feel more so than past releases. Has the band lost some of their brash and blatant tongue-in-cheek nature? A little. But they’ve taken the opportunity to mature into a different sound, testing the waters with folky Americana style ditties that abandons pretentious (albeit lovable) storytelling in favour of simple but poetic descriptions.
What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is an enchanting and soulful body of work that clearly shows the progression the Portland outfit have embarked on since 5 Songs. “We know we belong to ya, we know you threw your arms around us, in the hopes we wouldn’t change. But we had to change some. You know, to belong to you,” croons vocalist Colin Meloy in the first track.
This is the kind of clarity and honesty The Decemberists have running through the veins of the whole album. The song, The Singer Addresses His Audience is a tribute to long-time fans and a reflective look on both the band’s desire to change in order to stay relevant and the consumerist market for music. Starting off slowly then pulling up to a rock climax, Meloy sings of the group’s understanding of their fans – even adding the cheeky “We’re aware that you cut your hair in the style that our drummer wore in the video.” It’s a refreshing connection that reminds us there are still a lot of musicians who take notice of their fans and deeply care.
Between the cheeky Philomena to upbeat single Make You Better, there are still remnants of past releases that will please fans of The Decemberists’ tongue-in-cheek jokes. It may not be as frivolous a ‘joie de vivre’ as on Castaways and Cutouts but still there nonetheless. 12-17-12 is a perfect compliment to the heartfelt work that is What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. Whilst mentioning the album title a few times, Meloy also details the dichotomies of life – what a gift it is that he is able to have a full heart while others are grieving.
The accompanying silky sweet harmonies and harmonica solos make for one relaxing song. 12-17-12 solidifies The Decemberists’ spot in folk music and ties all the album’s elements together – bound by the idea that there are so many complexities in life, the only option is to move forward with a new ambition. Something this band has definitely embraced.
What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World was released on January 20, and is available on CD and Vinyl from The Decemberists’ website or digitally via iTunes.
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