The notes for What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World set alarm bells ringing: ‘The first songs were highly personal, a change from the strong narrative thrust that has characterized much of The Decemberists’ work. 'Having a family, having kids, having this career, getting older – all of these things have made me look more inward,' says Colin Meloy. Dammit. I don’t need Meloy to be an inward-looking singer-songwriter. The music world is stuffed to bursting with inward-looking singer-songwriters. They are legion: earnest men and women with guitars whose main lyrical concern is with themselves. The Decemberists, at their best, create stories and characters in their songs: whalers and their revenge quests, infantas in their palanquins, crane wives…
It doesn’t take long however for What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World to dispel these fears: the second track opens to Meloy triumphantly declaring "I am the cavalry captain!" and he’s off, in role, weaving narratives that, in the best tradition of the Decemberists, mix irreverent humour and archaic language. Things get even more fun in ‘Philomena’ where, to an accompaniment of cheery Sixties-style female backing singers, Meloy implores the titular lady to "let slip a ribbon down" and "let him go down, down, down". Other highlights include ‘Better Not Wake the Baby’, a short song that hints at a life of extreme poverty and domestic misery in the tradition of the best American folk songs as Meloy sings with morbid glee, "Gouge your eyes with a butter knife/ You’d better not wake the baby".
There are more inward-looking moments of the album certainly, such as the lead single ‘Make You Better’, but even here the galloping pace of the song and Meloy’s deft lyrical flourishes keep the momentum of the album going. If the album has a fault though it is in its inability to reign itself in. Fourteen tracks, a wide variety of unconnected lyrical topics and even musical styles do make it feel a little overlong and it sags somewhat in the middle. That said, it is worth mentioning just how catchy almost all of these songs are: listening to What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World twice on long car journeys was enough to embed most of the songs firmly into my daughters’ heads and they’re still singing them now.
The drawback of listening to a band that have been together for as long as The Decemberists is that they can lose the ability to surprise you; the advantage is that you’re listening to a band that have honed their craft, and their ability to play off each other, to a very high degree. Both these factors are noticeable when listening to this album: there’s nothing here that will shock long-term fans, but a lot for them to love: Meloy’s slightly nasal voice, the eloquent and irreverent lyrics, the full band sound that combines the intimacy of folk with the muscular power of rock are all present and correct.
The penultimate track ‘12/17/12’ (Americans and their crazy dating system!) is the centrepiece of the album; it is from the end of this song that the title of the album comes as Meloy reflects upon President Obama’s address on the Newtown school shootings on that date: “What a terrible world, what a beautiful world, what a world you make here”. As such this song makes a very interesting companion to Sun Kil Moon’s ‘Pray for Newtown’. Mark Kozelek deals with the aftermath of these terrible events in terms of an autobiographical and almost diary-entry level of detail; Meloy approaches it much more elliptically and metaphorically: quickly moving onto general reflections on the triumphs and tragedies of humanity in general, “What a world you make here". On What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World Meloy does compose some more inward-looking and personal songs, but without abandoning his love of creating stories and characters drawn from elsewhere too. The album is a collection of songs from a band at the peak of their powers having their cake and eating it too.
8Pieter J Macmillan's Score