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Album Review

The Decemberists – “What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World” [Album Review]

Something in What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, The Decemberists’ seventh studio album, falls a little flat, and you can find it right around when you turn the record over.



Have you ever seen a dog ride a motorcycle? After checking YouTube, I have, but it still seems like an apt description for how I felt listening to What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World – a little out of place. Maybe it was because I had spent the morning listening to New Orleans brass bands, or maybe it was because I generally avoid anything described as “folk” like I avoid rape-murderers or going to the dentist. Nonetheless, I’ve never listened to The Decemberists before, and tired of being dumped for not being adventurous enough, I decided to buy a one-way ticket to Uganda and pulled the album up on Spotify as my flight arched over the Atlantic.

About fifteen seconds into the opening track, “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” a particularly nagging thought presents itself – “how am I not going to compare this to R.E.M.?” The opening salvo of songs – “Cavalry Captain,” “Philomena,” and “Make You Better” – reminded me so much of “Losing My Religion” that I needed to listen a few times to hear the phenomenal songwriting underneath my obsessive anal-retentive subconscious. This resemblance, homage, whatever you call it is neither good nor bad, just something that couldn’t help but shape my impression of both artist and album.

On “Philomena,” lyricist Colin Meloy makes me mildly uncomfortable, singing his awkwardly-blatant ode to oral sex. The song is solid, don’t get me wrong, but a more cunning linguist would perhaps construct a bit of subtext or innuendo so I didn’t feel like I was hiding in a random woman’s closet, listening to her Tinder date beg her to “sit on his face.” It makes me feel unclean, Mr. Meloy.

I wish that the tracks had been arranged differently. The album presents itself to me with this duality to its nature – I thoroughly enjoy all of the early tracks, yet find that both my interest and the energy of the entire project deflates in the second act. To me, it seems like the first handful of songs “rock” or “roll” a little bit more, but I have this overpowering whisper in the back of my head telling me that isn’t so. Nonetheless, something in The Decemberists’ seventh studio album falls a little flat, and you can find it right around when you turn the record over.

Track Listing:

01. The Singer Addresses His Audience
02. Cavalry Captain
03. Philomena
04. Make You Better
05. Lake Song
06. Till The Water’s All Gone
07. The Wrong Year
08. Carolina Low
09. Better Not Wake The Baby
10. Anti-Summersong
11. Easy Come, Easy Go
12. Mistral
13. 12/17/12
14. A Beginning Song

Run Time: 52:57
Release Date: January 20, 2015

Check out the song “Make You Better” here.