The Decemberists return after a four-year hiatus with their seventh studio release, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World. The wonderfully titled album is full of folksy, chatty tunes that we’ve come to expect from the band. Only this time, it fails to enchant in quite the same way previous albums have.
“The Singer Addresses His Audience” opens the album with a cheeky sort of breaking of the fourth wall (do albums have fourth walls?). “We know, we know we belong to ya.” Colin Meloy explains to us that despite their fame and their fans’ idolatry, they had to change and evolve. This song, while humorous in a certain regards, seems a little unnecessary. It feels jaded and doesn’t fit thematically with the rest of the album. It’s a 4:43 prelude that we don’t need.
So many of the songs on this album, though lyrically interesting seem to lack the musical energy to match. “Make You Better” and “Till The Water’s All Gone” could be dazzling, but they just come off stale. Despite the band’s announcement that they’ve changed, many of the 14 songs on this album seems particularly comfortable with their perhaps too-familiar format.
Although a lot of What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World doesn’t take your breath away, there are a handful of really lovely tracks. “Philomena” is a peppy song about a potentially illicit affair. “All that I wanted in the world, is just to live to see a naked girl.” Saucy Colin Meloy. “Lake Song” adequately captures the nostalgia of a naïve young love with poignant images of suburbia in the backdrop. “Anti-Summersong” is energetic and fresh and only lasts 2:12. A lot of the songs are drawn out, clocking in over five minutes, but “Anti-Summersong” keeps it short and it’s all the better for that.
The strongest track on the album is “12/17/12.” As is the trend with most date-titled songs, this one is intensely personal. Colin Meloy reportedly wrote it in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. It’s introspective and weighty yet it transcends that particular incident to encompass what is the grander theme of this album: What a terrible world, what a beautiful world. It’s confusion, grief, longing, gratitude, and marveling at human existence all in three minutes. “12/17/12” is this album’s lighthouse.
While What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World probably won’t make any best-of lists, it’s a worth-while listen for the few tracks that do exhibit that energy and nuance of which the Decemberists are capable.