Sound — 7
The Decemberists have traveled a curious parallel with music culture in their fifteen-year history. Long before indie folk became a hot trend in music as well as a tandem punchline with hipsterism, The Decemberists and their folk-laden indie rock were seen as just a smarter (if not pretentious) alternative to country music. But when The Decemberists signed to Capitol Records after their third album, "Picaresque," their musical aspirations would undergo a growth spurt, and their fourth album, "The Crane Wife," showed the band putting prog rock efforts into their indie rolk, and would be their most elaborate record yet. They followed that with "The Hazards of Love," which originally attempted to top its predecessor by being a full-blown musical, though the musical concept never came to fruition. Still, as an album, it followed suit in soaring ambition, though it proved equally exhausting and polarizing of a listen.
It was after that when The Decemberists sought to bring things back to basics with their sixth album, "The King Is Dead." Of course, active around this time were fresh new faces like Mumford & Sons and Bon Iver, who further stoked the fires of indie folk and made the genre the hot new trend in music culture by the turn of the decade. So not only did "The King Is Dead" make for a proper palate-cleanser to The Decemberists' last couple of albums, but it was brought forth to the attention of a crowd much larger than before; it was the right place at the right time in every sense.
With their last album being a success through simplicity, perhaps that was why The Decemberists opted to take that route again with their seventh album, "What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World." On the surface, everything feels exactly as expected - frontman Colin Meloy's acoustic guitar guides the organ/accordion-lined paths towards the fiddles and harmonica solos in by-the-book folk-rockers like "The Singer Addresses His Audience," "Make You Better," "The Wrong Year," "Anti-Summersong," "Mistral Song" and "A Beginning Song." This wielding of familiar sound comes off as both dependable and unimaginative, given the fact that The Decemberists are on album seven, now, and duly so considering how bold and winding the variance of styles in "The Crane Wife" and "The Hazards of Love" were.
But although "What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World" sticks close to the home range of indie folk, The Decemberists make sure to have more in their corral than a one-trick pony. Though they don't whip out the pedal steel to tap into a heavy southern flavor like they did often in "The King Is Dead," the guitars flex their country blues muscles to get the job done in the morose tracks "Till The Water Is All Long Gone," "Carolina Low" and "Easy Come, Easy Go." They opt to stretch a little further than that though, both in sound and in disposition: the cheery piano melody and prominent vocal harmonies make "Philomena" very power-poppy, while the horns in "Cavalry Captain" give a shot of sunny jazz flavor to the folk-rocker, and the album reaches peak joviality with the short but sweet Irish drinking song "Don't Wake the Baby."
Lyrics — 6
Meloy's lyrics - evoking rich natural imagery and telling stories from "ye olde times" with the same literary ambition as anyone with a Master's degree in English - have always made for proper subject material to match The Decemberists' music, but as of lately, Meloy has shown efforts to write less floridly for the sake of accessibility. That effort is continued in "What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World," though the new things that substitute for it here don't wholly satisfy.
On one hand, Meloy taps into more personal feelings for songs on the album - from talking about how his band won't always fulfill the expectations of long-time fans in "The Singer Addresses His Audience" and "Anti-Summersong," to the sorrow he felt during the Sandy Hook tragedy in "12-17-12" - and as someone who usually gets his subject matter from old folk tales, it's nice to see him divulge his own feelings to the listeners.
On the other hand, Meloy's lyrics that continue to abstain from his old style of highly-dense language take a turn for the drab. Where Meloy would once write a full-blown story full of character development and ornate vocabulary, now it's filled with simpler circuits of easily-digestible verses and choruses that murmur on longer than necessary (see "The Cavalry Captain," "Till The Water Is All Long Gone" and "Mistral"). Perhaps Meloy's burnt out on the literary acrobatics that he used to pull off ten years ago, or perhaps this is the band changing like he said they were in "The Singer Addresses His Audience," but to anyone that's known the richness of Meloy's lyrics from past albums, the lyrics here will feel like "Meloy lite."
Overall Impression — 7
As The Decemberists choose to stay in the immediate ring of indie folk, there are two conflicting views. The first is that The Decemberists still kick a-s at making straight-shooting indie folk, and "What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World" is further proof of that. The second is that The Decemberists are most interesting when they're roaming about with musical extravagance, i.e. when they're making elaborate concept albums. "What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World" is good at playing to the band's strengths, but it's because of that that it can't go above and beyond like "The Crane Wife" or "The Hazards of Love."