The Decemberists are known for creating a unique sound through combining the rock, folk and indie genres and pairing disjointed ballads of dark and apocalyptic stories with upbeat blended melodies.
It’s had been four years since their last album, but their recently released “What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World” is consistent with their style and introduces new elements.
With a few exceptions, The Decemberists’ past albums have each had distinct sounds that pervaded most if not all the songs in that album. “The King Is Dead” was open and adventurous, “The Hazards of Love” was brooding and unsettling and “The Crane Wife” was full of their trademark folk sound. “What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World” sets itself apart by exploring many different moods.
The songs of “Terrible World” are simpler and focus on the singer rather than obscure events, such as in “Make you better” where the singer says “I loved you in springtime I lost you when summer came.”
Contrast this with the “The Hazards of Love,” where the entire album was a single extensive story, or these lines from “This Is Why We Fight,” featured in “The King Is Dead”: “And this is why, why we fight, why we lie awake.”
The songs in their newest album are closer, emotional, and more relatable. The folk sounds range from “Better Not Wake The Baby,” a plucky banjo bluegrass romp, to “Easy Come Easy Go,” a bluesy western swing ballad, to “Carolina Low,” a mournful and minimal acoustic piece.
The sweet and melodic “Philomena,” with background vocals and a happy melody, stands out from anything I’ve heard from The Decemberists so far.
Even as they depart from The Decemberists’ standard fare, the songs are undoubtedly Decemberistic. They move through all these styles while maintaining the distinct feel they are known for: twisted folkish tunes often in minor keys.
The band’s seventh album is also the most self-aware album they have put forth. “The Singer Addresses His Audience” is a simple commentary and apology about rising to fame as a musical artist, and the difficulty in staying true once attaining that fame.
The 10th song in the album, “Anti-Summersong,” is a reference to “Summersong,” the 10th song from “The Crane Wife.” And finally, the album is ironically closed by “A Beginning Song,” which also announces the “beginning” of a potential change in the future sound of the band.
The medley of sounds presented here gives The Decemberists many future paths to pursue. This variation of the songs in the album makes it feel less cohesive and less focused when compared to previous albums, but that same lack of focus makes the album feel more modern and fun, and the styles are refreshing.
“What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World” is an eloquent and varied display of styles by The Decemberists that still keeps the traditional components they are known for intact.