Here are some facts about The Decemberists:
- Prior to this month, they hadn't released a new studio album since 2011.
- Their last album, The King is Dead, was something of a departure from their previous work. It scrapped the epic prog-rock structures and fantastical narratives that had characterised albums like The Hazards of Love and The Crane Wife, and it erred instead towards a more folksy, down-to-earth sort of songwriting.
- While The King is Dead was reasonably well-received by critics (its metascore of 77 trumps the meagre 73 achieved by The Hazards of Love), I personally consider it their weakest album to date. It had far less personality than any of its predecessors, and fewer stories to tell; furthermore, the album's musical backdrop was significantly blander than the band's spectacular, accordion-pumping norm.
With all of the above in mind, you can probably guess how I felt going into What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, the first fresh batch of Decemberism in almost precisely four years. I was excited, certainly, but that excitement was cut with more than a little trepidation; any artist could be forgiven a small foray into the ho-hum after a project as ambitious as Hazards of Love, but if this new album had proved as ordinary as The King is Dead, I'd have had no choice but to assume that the Decemberists I had once loved were dead, buried, and surreptitiously replaced by indieblah clones of their former fun selves.
Fortunately for us all, the new'un is a lot more colourful than its unassuming forebear
In sound as well as in appearance.
It seems that my fears were unfounded: this new record is a lively gumbo of different stuff, just like Picaresque and other past glories. You've got bawdy songs (catchy cunnilingus plea Philomena), historical-sounding character songs (Cavalry Captain) and even a punchy accordion-led shanty (Better Not Wake the Baby). It's like the old Decemberists never left.
But the really interesting thing about What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is the fact that Colin Meloy seems entirely aware of the mixed feelings I had about this album before I heard it. The opening track, for example, is called The Singer Addresses His Audience, and this song is just as loaded and as subtext-a-licious as its title suggests. Here, for illustrative purposes, are some of its lyrics:
We know, we know, we belong to you. We know you built your life around us...and the hopes we wouldn't change. But we had to change some, you know."
Now, you may not be a Decemberists fan (and if you're not, uh, well done for reading this much about a band you don't even like), but I'd be willing to bet that you've been disappointed by at least one of your favourite artists. Perhaps they went all experimental, perhaps they just got boring, but either way, they lost you, and you've resented them ever since for changing their winning formula.
Well, The Singer Addresses His Audience is a message to every music fan who has ever proclaimed: "They changed it, now it sucks!" It's a love letter/thank-you note to the Decemberists faithful, but Meloy's heartfelt tribute comes with a caveat, a reminder that the band must keep moving forward. He just hopes that you'll stick with him and see where the journey leads next.
Anti-Summersong is another interesting one (and a gold-plated ROPSWED to boot). It's named for Summersong, a track from 2006's The Crane Wife, which remains my favourite Decemberists album of all time. Here, again, is a lyrical excerpt:
I'm not goin' on just to sing another Summersong. So long, farewell - don't everybody fall all over themselves!
I love this song. It's a nod to the band's back catalogue - always a great way to score points with the diehard fans - and yet, at the same time, it's telling listeners that, no, we're not going to rehash our back catalogue just because you like those songs. If you want to hear Summersong again, go put The Crane Wife on; this is our NEW album, bitches.