The Decemberists "What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World"

For fans of The Decemberists the past four years have been a test of patience.  The quintet went on hiatus with frontman Colin Meloy teaming with his wife, illustrator Carson Ellis, on the children’s fantasy series “The Wildwood Chronicles.”Other band members worked on various music projects including Black Prairie, a group comprised of the rest of the band’s membership. The furlough ends with the release of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.

Having four years to reflect on ones work offers a chance for introspection and that certainly appears to have had an impact on Meloy’s songwriting. He’s traded sea shanties, murder ballads, and tales of mythology for passion plays of day to day living and recollections of love’s first fumbling. The band’s signature folk rock features a more pop leaning elements, including stream-lined song lengths. Several songs clock in at just over or under two minutes – this from a band known for ten minute long ballads! There is also more variety in melody and tempo, and songs feature richer, more layered choruses.  “Easy Come, Easy Go” struts with western twang and swagger. “Better Not Wake the Baby” matches banjo, accordion, and big bass drums. The influence of Nick Drake is obvious on the shimmering “Lake Song” a ballad of early sexual experience, decorated with filigreed guitar. Speaking of sexual experience, “Philomena” is a lovely, fairly discreet celebration of oral delights – “open up your linen lap and let me go down.”  There are also a couple of self-references. “The Singer Addresses His Audience” might be about a boy band but just as easily can be read as the band’s new focus. “Anti-Summersong” pokes a sarcastic finger at one of their earlier songs. Meloy does hit a somber note on “12/17/12” from which the album’s title is derived. It reflects Meloy’s emotions – both grief and gratitude – following the horrific Newtown shootings.

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World features Meloy’s penchant for using archaic poetic phrasing and exotic vocabulary. His dipper sinks deep into the well of words and comes up with overlooked verbs and nouns like “eidolon,” “jib,” and “paramour.” Tucker Martine, who has produced many of the band’s recordings, reprises his role and is joined by guest vocalists Laura Veirs and Kelly Hogan.

Rosemary Welsch (Afternoon Mix)