How could you ever grow weary of turn of the century tunes about press gangs and infanticide? Whether you’re picking out the perfect flannel to go with your civil war beard or sinking your teeth into a vegan artisan donut, The Decemberists have been there as the consummate hipster folk band of this era. I could imagine the old timey gimmick has gotten a little too old for some. Everyone in this band is pushing forty and yet still sound like pretentious Lit majors. Nonetheless, I still find the folksy approach as charming as a makeshift birdhouse. Which is impressive considering I’ve probably heard this album over twenty times (not always willingly).
What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World just so happens to be one of the albums that has been on constant shuffle for two months now at the Barnes & Noble where I work. I know this album from front to back, with the exception of track 3 which doesn’t work on the store copy. On my first listen about twenty shifts ago, my reaction was that Decemberists album no. 7 was taking on more than it could chew. The first three tracks all build to epic rock crescendos with big brass sections and choruses of singing children. The album then takes an odd u-turn with the understated lead single “Make You Better” in the cleanup spot. It’s followed by an even slower, contemplative song, and then a softer than soft acoustic number. From here on out the album goes back and forth between styles, all somewhat similar but not enough to be cohesive.
I think back to The Decemeberists last album The King is Dead. That album was all folksy Americana and it worked. The one before that, The Hazards of Love, was all over the top rock opera stuff, and it worked. What this new album is isn’t as clear in sound or in lyrical content. There are emotional love songs, songs about the south, sea shanties, it’s all over the place. My suggestion? Stick to a path and follow it.
What I haven’t addressed is when when this album wants to work it does. “Make You Better” feels the most natural with its moody guitar and school boy delivery from Colin Meloy. Meanwhile, “The Wrong Year” is everything I could ever want in a Decemberists song; a relaxed tempo, sensitive lyrics, accordion, bada bing, bada boom. As for the rest, there’s some perfectly acceptable moments but as a whole this feels more like an iTunes playlist than an album. Like a drunk fan put together a mashup of different Decemberists songs from the past fifteen years. Don’t get me wrong, I like it fine, but I see so more potential here. I think The Decemberists still have great albums in them, this one just happens to be a good one.
But what do I know? If you haven’t already heard this, then by all means, put on some flannel, get a coffee, get an artisan vegan donut, dunk ‘n dip, and let it all soak it in.
Favorite Tracks: “Calvary Captain,” “Make You Better,” “The Wrong Year”