Release Date: Jan 20, 2015
Record label: Capitol
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock
Review Summary: Not so starry-eyed anymore, and better for it.We all knew The Decemberists were a different band when they unleashed 2011’s foray into folk-based Americana, The King Is Dead. The band said "no more!" to elaborate stories, literary references, and bloated opera-like production. Instead, songs were centered around heartwarming acoustics, personal lyrics, and accessible sing-along choruses.
"O Philomena," sings Colin Meloy on his band's return after a four-year hiatus – because Jills and Judys clearly don't excite his quill like the polysyllabic hottie he implores to "open up your linen lap and let me go down." With sultry ooh-wahs and chiming guitars, "Philomena" might be the catchiest cunnilingus tribute since Foxy Brown's "Candy," and it shows a band refreshed, enriching its trademark folk rock with Seventies pop plushness and hooks. It's a good move for a crew whose lexically intoxicated smarty-pants instincts can get the best of it. "Cavalry Captain" flaunts bright Chicago IX brass and backing vocals à la the Carpenters' Now & Then; "Lake Song" is a perfect evocation of Nick Drake's fleecy Bryter Layter.
The four-year break since Oregon indie-folk types the Decemberists topped the US album charts with The King Is Dead has clearly been well spent. While retaining the warmth and intelligence that has served them so well thus far, What a Terrible World… finds the five-piece at their most wide-ranging, from the sea shanty-influenced Better Not Wake the Baby and the 50s harmonies of Philomena to the mournful, harmonica-led 12/17/12, a reflection on the Newtown school shootings. Best of all is the joyful pop of Cavalry Captain, as irrepressible as it is infectious.
The Decemberists belatedly embraced their indie pop sensibilities (or at very least their fondness for R. E. M.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. Even before they released The King Is Dead - four years ago this month - The Decemberists had already decided they'd be taking some time off once promotion was wrapped, and not without justification. It wasn't just that they'd been going pretty much full pelt since their debut, Castaways and Cutouts, introduced their uniquely cerebral style to the world in 2002; they'd begun to deal in extremes of late, with The King Is Dead's stripped-back Americana poles apart from its delightfully overblown predecessor, the sonically adventurous and thematically intricate concept album The Hazards of Love.
There really is no other modern band like the Decemberists. Formed 15 years ago in Portland, Oregon, by guitarist/singer Colin Meloy, the quintet never ceases to craft indie/folk rock gems that are catchy yet nuanced, intricate yet welcoming, and above all else, lovably eccentric yet classy. In particular, Meloy’s voice, lyricism, and overall compositional style is wholly unique and very rewarding.
In 2011, The King Is Dead gave the Decemberists a surprise US No 1 after a decade in the indie trenches, and their seventh album wastes no time in addressing the band’s longer-serving fans. “We know we belong to you,” sings Colin Meloy. “But we had to change some.” As with The King Is Dead, their more complex musical adventures have given way to a more straightforwardly melodic sound, which echoes REM, 80s scousers Pale Fountains and English folk.
The Decemberists are a fascinating band. On the face of it, a fairly normal American indie-rock band with a touch of folk to them. Catchy, melodic, decent. But delve deeper into the five-piece’s six album-strong back catalogue and you’ll find a band with a depth and breadth few ever come close to.
The notes for What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World set alarm bells ringing: ‘The first songs were highly personal, a change from the strong narrative thrust that has characterized much of The Decemberists’ work. 'Having a family, having kids, having this career, getting older – all of these things have made me look more inward,' says Colin Meloy. Dammit.
Upon the release of The Decemberists‘ sixth album, the US chart topping The King Is Dead in 2011, the band’s songwriter, frontman and resident author Colin Meloy declared that the band would be taking a break. Keyboard player Jenny Conlee was diagnosed with cancer in the same year – presumably a major reason for the band’s disappearance; with Meloy’s exploits into the world of children’s books also drawing his time, the hiatus was inevitable. Four years later, studio album number seven arrives and it’s set to divide a loyal fanbase.
Colin Meloy’s music has always been meant to be consumed from a literary perspective. The indie-folk demigod and frontman of The Decemberists even morphed into a YA novelist in the four years since the band’s last release, The King is Dead. But it seems as if now, on the seventh LP by The Decemberists, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, that Meloy has left the robust character development to the novels and instead focused on more general subjects, while building a new notion of Americana in the digital age.
Colin Meloy and the Decemberists made a name for themselves with proggy excess, a twee skit-focused stage act, and a nerdist lyrical identity that's more George R.R. Martin than George Jones. But the last few years have seen the band deviate from those tropes and shift toward brevity and greater conservatism. One could view their last album, The King Is Dead, which unexpectedly topped the charts four years ago, as a reactionary course correction after the tepid response engendered by 2009's perhaps overly ambitious concept album The Hazards of Love; The King Is Dead's familiar, congenial Americana sound, which could be described as “R.E.M.
Original Artwork by Kristin Frenzel (Buy Prints + More) The Decemberists are back after four long years. Cue the montage: Colin Meloy has been hard at work on his whimsical children’s book series, The Wildwood Chronicles, and the band’s other four founding members have been recording and touring with Portland bluegrass group Black Prairie. But after realizing that there was simply no one else to fill their hobnailed boots or effectively employ an accordion in a rock song, they combined their powers once again.
Barely a minute into What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, Colin Meloy sings, "We know you threw your arms around us/In the hopes we wouldn't change/But we had to change some." Plenty of that opening track ("The Singer Addresses His Audience") is tongue-in-cheek, but the message is clear: don't expect any songs about infanticide, revenge, whores, barrow boys, or any of the other affectations that characterized The Decemberists' early work. .
The Decemberists have always aimed their sights at bookish fans who wanted music to be significant, who were interested in legends and myths and theatre and thesauruses. Instead of feeling good in a Decemberists song, there was "a rush of ripe élan," and it wasn’t just seeing some girls over there, it was "15 lithesome maidens lay along in their bower." The vellum-bound folios of Colin Meloy’s songs are full of heightened verse that make them fun in the same way that Kate Bush singing about Heathcliff and Cathy, or Peter Gabriel’s cape from "Watcher of the Skies", or swirling wine around in a glass is fun. There’s so much joy, however affected, in Meloy’s language: It’s camp for fans of Hawthorne.
From the opening moments of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, The Decemberists’ seventh album, and first in four years (a significant gap in their otherwise fairly prolific output) there’s a sense of a very premature climax in the air, with The Singer Addresses His Audience seeing Colin Meloy and co reaching for the ‘inspirationally soaring backing vocals’ button within the first few minutes. And if that wasn’t structurally perplexing enough, the album closes with a beginning (or rather A Beginning Song), leading the listener to conclude that What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is an album experienced backwards, or at least in a slightly jumbled up fashion. But to what end? Could it be a way of drawing to a close the band’s previous era, which saw them become bigger than perhaps they, or anyone else, had ever really thought possible; on the back of it must be said, really quite bland record, before personal issues forced that longer-than-usual career break, and starting fresh.
The Decemberists are known for building albums around elaborate concepts, heady stuff inspired by Japanese folk tales and rock operas. For their latest, they’ve come up with the best one yet: It is “blessedly free of concept,” as frontman Colin Meloy recently told the Guardian. Blessed indeed. “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” is one of the indie-rock band’s most enjoyable and lively efforts in recent memory.
Colin Meloy, the grandiloquent bard at the heart of the Decemberists, plants his silver tongue firmly in cheek at the start of “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World,” the group’s new album. By way of a deadpan disclaimer titled “The Singer Addresses His Audience” — “We had to ….
The Decemberists What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (Capitol) Indie rock fanatics and tastemakers have gotten so used to Portland's Decemberists having a narrative concept (The Crane Wife, The Hazards of Love), or trying to prove something (the "We're not a prog band – really!" songcraft of The King Is Dead) that an album as straightforward as What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World feels underwhelming. Put aside expectations of grandeur, however, and Colin Meloy's musical and thematic obsessions reward handsomely. The lustful "Philomena" emulates Sixties girl-group pop, while the melancholic "Make You Better" and "Cavalry Captain" find the band pursuing indie pop at its most melodic.
Winter semester is upon us, and it makes a certain amount of sense that Portland, Ore., folk rock band the Decemberists and Scottish folk-rock-disco balladeers Belle & Sebastian would issue new musical texts on the same Tuesday in January. Both acts have survived first-blush crushes and sophomore disappointments and earned followers through consistency, wit and insight. They've done so with foreign accents both real (singers Stuart Murdoch, Stevie Jackson and Sarah Martin of Scotland's Belle & Sebastian) and acquired (Colin Meloy of the Decemberists), and craft artful, bespoke music that practically demands any review include at least one mention of Oscar-nominated director Wes Anderson.
Erudite and punctilious, Portland, Oregon act The Decemberists emerged in the early ’00s, polarizing from the outset. Frontman Colin Meloy used his nasal croon to captivate legions of ardent acolytes, capturing the hearts of Smiths and R.E.M. fans alike with his whip-smart lyrics and a keen ear for inventive melodic structure, while simultaneously alienating his fair share of listeners due to his arcane literary references and acquired-taste vocal style.
Colin Meloy opens "What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World," the Decembrists' first album since 2011, with something of a tongue-in-cheek Dear John letter to the Portland band's most ardent fans. "We're aware that you cut your hair / In the style that our drummer wore in the video. " But, Meloy gently advises, as much as the fans didn't want the band to shift gears, "we had to change some.
I just read a news story on a 7-year old girl who survived a small plane crash, trekking nearly a mile in the cold, wintry Kentucky wilderness in Florida-weather clothing to get help. Everyone else died, including her parents, sister, and cousin. The literal miracle that this girl survived the crash and her search for help and the burden of facing this world utterly alone now as her survivor’s reward both will bring a tear to your eye.
Four years. That’s how long it’s been since fans were able to revel in new music from The Decemberists. Since then, the band's grown. They’ve worked other projects. They’ve started and raised families while juggling their careers and coping with the realization that they too are getting ….