By: Derek Jung
The Decemberists have been one of the most consistent bands of the past decade. From folk rock focused albums like their previous LP The King is Dead to their rock opera classic Hazards of Love, Colin Meloy and company have released solid album after solid album. I've always admired Meloy's literary approach to songwriting, making references that even the English majors in the crowd might miss if they aren't paying attention. I had the pleasure of seeing them this summer at Bunbury Music Festival in Cincinnati and Meloy did not waste the opportunity to ask the crowd if the festival's name was a reference to Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
On What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, the group takes a more straightforward approach to songwriting. Gone are many of the deep literary allusions, and this certainly isn't the Hazards of Love Part 2. Instead, I would argue that this is the most pop influenced album from the group to date, a middle ground from The King is Dead, Picaresque, and Hazards of Love. Meloy doesn't depart completely from his distinctive songwriting style, in fact, his style is still firmly in place, but it's taken in a different direction. From some of the first lines of the album opener, "The Singer Addresses His Audience," he sings "We know you threw your arms around us/In the hopes we wouldn't change/But we had to change some/ You know, to belong to you." Instead of blown up narratives, Meloy takes things introspective lyrically and the mood of the album follows.
The first single "Make You Better" is a perfect example of Meloy's approach on the album. In the past, instead of writing about how love cannot solve your own problems within, he'd have masked it in an epic tale of mythological monsters and maidens in distress. But here, Meloy is laid bare, and it's a great change. The song starts with just electric guitar and Meloy before slowly building to a powerful refrain. By the time the final refrain reaches its peak, the song is epic not because of its lyrical subject matter, but in and of itself.
But where "Make You Better" was successful, some of the other songs on the album drag under Meloy's new-found approach. There's something to be said for songs like "The Mariner's Revenge Song" or "16 Military Wives" from albums past, that bombastic attitude and fascination for the literary and the nerdy, and that something is missed on the latter half of this album. "Better Not Wake The Baby" gives a quick glimpse of the sea shanty styling of old, but there's an X-factor on the rest of the album that leaves me unsatisfied and yearning for more. The lone bright spot is the final song on the album, ironically titled "A Beginning Song".
It will be interesting to see if Meloy and the band decide to stay the course for the next album or if we see a "revival" of his old songwriting habits. For now, I'll have to read a few books to be prepared to understand them.
My Number: 6/10
Joseph: We pretty much agree on this album 100%. The only thing I want to add is an emphasis on "Better Not Wake The Baby." For me, as I was listening to this album it was really starting to drag at that point, with the single "Make You Better" long over, but I was completely reinvigorated by this song. Now one of my favorite songs of the year, "Better Not Wake The Baby" is exactly what I was hoping for on every song when I started this album. Which makes it all the worse because it's only 1:45 long. This song is a return to old, and so I really hope in the future that's what we return to. The album does feel like a Decemberists album, but at best it is a hollow feeling. Go out and get 'em next time, boys.
My Number: 6/10
PS-I know this is an album review, but check out that video for "Make You Better." It is easily one of the best music videos I've seen all year.
Who are we?
Derek Jung and Joseph Kathmann -- Just two ordinary guys that love talking about music. You can read more about us here.