The Decemberists have played the roles of wizened storytellers in indie rock for over a decade. These deep folk roots seem like they would make maturation a strange process for the band, whose seventh LP What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World dropped on Jan. 20.
This new release strips away the band’s signature baroque pop theatrics in exchange for music and lyrics that retain an aspect of narration, but are rendered severe and confessional. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World also sees the band continuing to deviate from its neo-folkloric concept album tradition.
If 2011’s The King is Dead was the band’s best attempt at songs that stand on its own, this album comes off as an artificial evolution of that idea––a forced attempt to complicate a style that was discovered naturally. The band plays this off as newly attained maturity––a sign that they are growing as people as well as musicians––but what it actually represents is a transition from an organic indie sound to one that is decidedly more commercial.
The album begins, paradoxically, with hesitation. In “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” Colin Meloy apologetically sings, “We knew you threw your arms around us in the hopes we wouldn’t change, but we had to change.” The rest of the album takes on the quality of something reluctantly made—perhaps a mistake or something Meloy is only half-interested in sharing with us.
For probably the first time in The Decemberists’ history, there are unimportant lyrics; phrases that are valuable only because we hear them sung. Throwaway lines like, “If only you’d let me go down, down, down” or “I wanted you, I needed you,” heard in “Philomena” and “Make You Better” respectively, are in abundance.
These phrases aren’t repeated for any special reason; this is clear-cut, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”-style, pop rock mindlessness. Early in his career, Meloy was described as indie rock’s new Jeff Mangum. Now, he seems to be aiming for Lennon and McCartney. But while The Beatles evolved out of pop infancy into artistic maturity, Meloy has instead committed himself to musical degeneration.
Even the less poppy songs are lackluster, at least by Decemberists standards. “Till The Water’s All Long Gone” is almost a step back in time to the band’s epic fable period. It tells the narrative of a speaker committed to defending a fountain or some other source of water from someone or something on a mountain. Yes, it is actually that vague.
If What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World has a saving grace, it’s that it is a Decemberists album. At worst, it is worth listening to just for Meloy’s melodic vocals. Still, the lack of ambition and the insincerity regarding the album’s confessional nature is not ignorable, even if the band was thoughtful enough to head off this effort with an apology.