The Decemberists venture into a terrible, beautiful world

I gotta admit, “Hazards of Love” (2009) is still my favourite Decemberists album for the conceptual density and beauty and epic bow before prog rock. The storytelling – which makes the most popular and ambitious songs by the Decemberists as bright as they are – is drawing you in and the guest vocalists (or rather guest diamonds) add a nice addition to Colin Meloy’s trademark-voice. Two years later, “The King is Dead” (2011) delivered good quality but seemed a little thin after this gigantic flamboyant rock opera. But it turned out to contain some songs that haunted me and showed a grim defiance that shines through as soon as you get over the fact that “The King is Dead” is a (very strong) country album.

In a way, this last (studio-) album was a perfect palet cleanser because the new record “what a terrible world, what a beautiful world” is a lot less bold in its genre experiments from a conceptual “Hazards”-point of view but contains some of the most unusual songs for this band that is as beloved by most as it is despised by a few people who don’t care for whimsically nice things dipped in murder.

Even though there are quite a few songs that are as true to the former style as they could be, you’ll find that some of them venture off and others immediately start off with unusual directions. There is a hint of Britpop in “The Wrong Year” or – my highlight of the album – “A Beginning Song” whereas songs like “Philomena” and “Easy come, easy go” play with the 50s – whether it is sweet and prom-y as the former or dirty leatherboot-y as the latter. You’ll find background choirs that carry with them a faint smell of Elvis’ aftershave (“Mistral”) and a convincing country-blues ditty with “Carolina Low”.

Don’t get me wrong, these are not completely out there and still sound like The Decemberists. I think we all can agree that this band has such a strong voice that it would be hard – and probably not really successful – if they suddenly changed all of that. But “what a terrible world..” is a bright and exciting look at what this band can shape with this voice and how they can create a song that is their style to the T but still sounds fresh as rain in spring.

The lyrics – and this is something newish since the last album – don’t revolve as much around robbers and unfaithful partners and lots of knives but deal with the state of the world as a whole and the state of the world for one (or a handful of) individual(s). It’s a weird feeling if you are actually happy but watching the news feels like your life is completely dissonant with humanity and you try to balance out the joy of your privilege and security with the reality of most people which is quite the opposite. By the way, the title “what a terrible world, what a beautiful world” is a quote by Barack Obama after the Sandy Hook Massacre.

And yes, I hope that the next album will finally have another epic Decemberists’ tale of love and deceit and murder on it (and a length that defies every radio playlist) but for now, I am very happy that this album exists and offers so much new to discover. It’s been an awful long time and we were all worried about Jenny (and oh so happy about her recovery) and we were happy for Colin and Carson Ellies’ venture into literature (finally!) and we were all longing for a newly hatched Decemberists song.


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