The Decemberists

What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World

Written by: LF on 09/02/2015 12:58:28

For fans of indie rock and folk, the American quintet The Decemberists should be a familiar name as they've been around for quite some time. "What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World" is the band's seventh full-length album in addition to several EP releases through the years, and its songs span a diversity of indie rock and Irish folk styles. Many of the songs are catchy in a very simple way and while simplicity isn't necessarily a bad thing, the album is overall not very memorable apart from a few stand-out tracks.

A variety of instruments apart from standard guitars, bass and drums are used across the album such as various keyboards and synthesizers, Hammond organ, accordion, melodica, and cello. While the use of all these instruments gives the album a very rich and beautiful sound, the simplicity of the compositions means that many of the songs feel like they're not going anywhere in particular. Several of them are built around little gimmicks and might be interesting at first but quickly fall through on repeated listens, and this only gets more and more saddening as the contrast between the good songs and the rest becomes more and more apparent as the album progresses. To name a few, "Philomena" for instance opens with female backing singers sighing sugar-sweet "oooaah"-sounds that sounds like something straight out of the '50s, "Better Not Wake The Baby" plays with some interesting and slightly dark Irish inspirations, and "Mistral" stands out with its slower, country-infused vibe. Other songs like the energetic "Cavalry Captain" or the melancholic "The Wrong Year" intrigue the listener with catchy guitars and insisting vocal melodies but as in the before-mentioned tracks, their ideas aren't developed very well and we are left with songs that feel more like genre exercises and early ideas rather than thoughtfully composed, emotional pieces.

The first of the songs that do make a good impression is the intro track with the meta-title of "The Singer Addresses His Audience". It introduces us to several of The Decemberists' musical expressions as it unfolds dramatically from soft acoustic guitars and fragile harmonies to a much bigger full band sound including elaborate string and choir arrangements and a very distorted guitar solo. From here the album moves on with a predominant indie rock approach that gradually includes more and more folk elements as it progresses. The lyrical content of this first song is what is mostly worth commenting on, however. Throughout the album vocalist Colin Meloy communicates a certain light-hearted melancholy and combines this very well with his a dry humor but in this first song, where he comments on the relationship between band and audience, this ends up sounding equal parts earnest and arrogantly teasing as he repeats "We know, we know, we belong to you / We know you built your life around us / And would we change / We had to change some / You know, to belong to you". It's a sort of alienating way to kick off the album but ultimately what shines through the most is the enormous warmth in the instruments and the light-hearted atmosphere of the band.

In "The Singer Addresses His Audience" we are also introduced to one of the very best things about the album, namely the lovely vocal harmonies from Jenny Conlee that throughout the album provide the songs with extra tension as they add texture to Meloy's melodies. The better songs of the record all feature these harmonies prominently and all have very distinct atmospheric elements. The first of these is the steadily advancing "Make You Better" that calls the listener's attention instantly with its very straightforward melody and all-encompassing, warm sound that stands out from the surrounding songs. Another stand-out track is "Lake Song" which is a slow and emotional song that paints a very convincing melancholic atmosphere with calm instrumentation and a heart-tugging chorus melody. Finally the grandiose indie rock song "A Beginning Song" also deserves a mention as it ends the album with a very open sound that feels like the optimistic beginning of something new.

What is really a shame about this album is that the span between the few good songs and the rest is as big as it is. The album in general quickly gets boring with several listens while the few standout tracks retain their quality level over time and as such the length of the album which spans fourteen songs doesn't do it any favors when so many of them sound underdeveloped. From reputation I know The Decemberists as a big name in the scene especially because of their often eclectic live performances, and while the standout songs that I have mentioned are sure to be replayed on my stereo over the next couple of months I really hope the band's next album will have more of a consistent quality.


Download: Make You Better, Lake Song, A Beginning Song
For The Fans Of: Neutral Milk Hotel, Ryan Adams, Arcade Fire, Modest Mouse

Release date 20.01.2015
Capitol Records

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