The Decemberists’ frontman, Colin Meloy, begins the band’s seventh full length record in an almost apologetic fashion, pleading with his fans to let him escape the literary folk bubble inside which they exist: “We know you threw your arms around us in the hopes we wouldn’t change/But we had to change some.” It is a playful way to open the album, and in many ways defines the goal of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World: to form a collection of songs without concept or goal, which are perhaps more self-aware and reflexive than their past records.
For the most part however, this is an album that represents gentle progression rather than revolution. Their music remains steeped in historical and literary tradition, particularly on tracks such as “Cavalry Captain”, which gently and humorously recalls the age of Tennyson. Nevertheless, it is also one which comes far closer to a pop record than anything they have produced. From the rasping bass that underpins “Make You Better”, to the hilariously high pitched keys of “Philomena”, this is an album shamelessly embracing a more expansive, catchy sound.
Clocking in at just under an hour, there is a lingering feeling that the record meanders at points and lacks the punch of The King is Dead or the epic sweep of The Crane Wife. However, the production is so gorgeous that listening to What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is never a chore, and it often positively glows. The album sparks into life at the end, with the poignant “12/17/12” and the lively “A Beginning Song”.
There are times, too, when this record is so lush and charming that it is almost impossible not to be seduced. “Lake Song”, in particular, is at times mournful, at times wistful, yet always fearlessly romantic.
As Meloy revels in weaving a beautiful tale of nostalgia and young love, it is clear that The Decemberists have again captured what makes a precious folk record.