The Decemberists’ new album It’s a Terrible World, It’s a Beautiful World sums up how I feel about it: it’s a bad album; it’s a good album. I’m not a Decemberists hater either. I love the kooky instrumentation, the bizarre lyrical narratives, and the community theatre esque props used onstage during live shows.
But this album feels different to me. I shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, 2010’s The King is Dead veered away from the whimsical short stories found in past songs. On The King is Dead and Terrible World, Beautiful World, there are no barrow boys, vengeful mariners, chimbley sweeps, or other colorful characters.
However, I really enjoyed King is Dead because it still felt cohesive. All the songs had a folksy Americana flavor to them featuring harmonicas, slide guitars, and banjos. Even though there weren’t characters, the album still sounded like a Decemberists’ album. Terrible World, Beautiful World is not cohesive musically and lacks some of the charm from earlier works. Songs like “Make You Better” and “The Wrong Year sound like something a generic pop folk band like The Lumineers or Of Monsters and Men might put out. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if they stuck with that template, but then they throw in a song like “Better Not Wake the Baby” that sounds like it could be on one of their early albums. The songs just don’t mix together well, which makes the album drag.
One charming thing about the album is that Colin Meloy seems to have anticipated these criticisms from fans like me. The opening track, “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” addresses the idea that bands have to change even if it feels like they “belong” to the fans. This song almost acts as a humorous disclaimer to longtime fans which adds some dimension to the album. “Anti-Summersong” similarly adds a humorous line about Meloy not writing another “suicide sing-a-long song.” Meloy wants listeners to know the Decemberists are changing but does it in a lovable, self-aware way.
Perhaps I have mixed feelings about the album because I have such a sentimental attachment to the band. I have this vivid memory of my buddy Adam playing me Picaresque in his car. I felt so excited when I heard the opening strains of “The Infanta.” I had never heard anything like it, and I was hooked. I also have great memories of learning “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” with my dad by heart and belting it out during car trips. The thing I noticed while listening to Terrible World, Beautiful World is that it made me want to listen to older Decemberists’ songs. This is ironic due to the fact that this album stresses change so much. Hopefully, the Decemberists can find a way to stay relevant while maintaining what makes them unique.