Music Reviews
What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

The Decemberists What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

(Rough Trade) Rating - 4/10

From the opening moments of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, The Decemberists’ seventh album, and first in four years (a significant gap in their otherwise fairly prolific output) there’s a sense of a very premature climax in the air, with The Singer Addresses His Audience seeing Colin Meloy and co reaching for the ‘inspirationally soaring backing vocals’ button within the first few minutes. And if that wasn’t structurally perplexing enough, the album closes with a beginning (or rather A Beginning Song), leading the listener to conclude that What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is an album experienced backwards, or at least in a slightly jumbled up fashion. But to what end? Could it be a way of drawing to a close the band’s previous era, which saw them become bigger than perhaps they, or anyone else, had ever really thought possible; on the back of it must be said, really quite bland record, before personal issues forced that longer-than-usual career break, and starting fresh. Or is it just a bit of a non-linear based mucking about, to make things seem a bit cleverer than they really are?

It’s perhaps not that interesting a point really, but it’s still a lot more interesting than anything that their last, The King is Dead, had to offer. What is perhaps more interesting, although more problematic to unpack, is the choice of subject matter in that opening track. Satirising the nature of pop stardom from both sides, The Singer Addresses His Audience tackles the hoary old chestnut of a band’s selling out, and how their overly devoted audience reacts to such a thing, all safely couched in the irony that The Decemberists aren’t the sort of band who attract such devotion. Although it does manage to include reference to Axe shampoo that’s both witty and winningly harmonised. Any suspicion that, however unlikely, that first track was actually a rare sincere statement is quickly dispelled with the next, as Cavalry Captain sees things very much back on the usual Decemberists course of old; a sort of rousing roots-y ramble, albeit with an air of education, like a teacher’s well-meaning attempt to ‘bring history to life’ for a class of bored schoolkids.

And that’s the problem with What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World: the sense that nothing really matters. There’s always been something quite academic about The Decemberists’s work, but they’ve never sounded quite so much like ‘academic exercises’. There’s a fair amount of textbook-standard execution on display, but no real sense of anything of depth to back it up. Where once The Decemberists managed to bury melancholy and humour underneath the veneer of intellectual distance, now things just feel rote and inauthentic. Such as in the faux-country stylings of Anti-Summersong, or Make You Better’s “I want you thin fingers, I wanted you thin fingernails”, declaration of lust so forcedly quirky that it’s only really fit for a mixtape for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in your life (something no doubt helped by the line being delivered in Meloy’s finest amorous goat bleat).

Elsewhere the pastiches are more successful, with the almost Motown-sway of Mistral showing that the band are furthering their explorations into genuinely American genres (although perhaps they’re a bit too obviously ‘nice’ and well-behaved to fully pull off its on-the-road narrative), while Better Not Wake the Baby’s domestic tale rather stands out, partially for its uncomfortable Punch and Judy-level violence, partially for it sounding a bit like the theme from Blackadder III, but mainly for its sub 90 second breeziness in the middle of a rather overlong record.

Always professional, but rarely memorable, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, much like its fudge of a title, ultimately balances out as a fairly middling work.