What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World was released on January 20, 2015, and is The Decemberists' seventh studio album. In the 15 years the band has been playing together, they've developed a signature sound but they've also shown an ability to be creative, experimental, and flexible.
Lead-singer Colin Meloy is evidently aware of his status as an indie icon. The biggest thing you'll notice about this new album is Meloy's brazen lyricism, as he talks directly to his audience with humor and intense self-awareness.
The indie darlings of Portland begin their album with the aptly titled track, “A Singer Addresses His Audience.” Colin Meloy pokes fun at both his fans and himself, ultimately communicating that change is inevitable in music and life. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is alternately humorous and serious. The listener is afforded moments of deep reflection without getting sucked into the abyss.
Radio friendly singles, "Cavalry Captain," "Make You Better," and "The Wrong Year," are upbeat highlights. "Cavalry Captain" drives itself forward with pulsing auxiliary percussion and sweeping horns. "Make You Better" was released as the album's first single at the end of last year. The track has a melody that burrows into the ear and stays with you. "The Wrong Year" has the most potential to be the next single off of this album, with its laid-back vocals and danceable feel.
The album dives into themes that range from darkly comedic, to nostalgic, to existential. “Philomena” plays with thinly veiled double entendre and doo wop backing vocals. The song's blunt lyrics are certainly worth a few laughs, and the bright piano accompaniment does all the more to lift the song’s mood. Yet The Decemberists manage to twist the accompaniment into something that conveys a sense of loss in “Lake Song.” The piano dances above the constant strum of the guitar while Meloy relays an account of teenage yearning and frustration.
One of the greatest gifts The Decemberists have to offer on this album is the ability to use individual instruments as another narrative voice. "Carolina Low" is an exceptional example of this. The lyrics and melody are fairly stripped down, especially for a Decemberists tune. With a single guitar, the soft stomp of a foot, and brooding vocals, “Carolina Low” takes a bluesy direction. The track following “Carolina Low” is conversely more vocally and instrumentally lush, and is another standout on the album. Titled “Better not Wake the Baby,” it is a darkly humorous song, and one that reminds the listener that Meloy is a new father.
With “12/17/12,” Meloy reflects on the world that his child is being born into, the track being written in the wake of the Newton school shootings. He mourns those who are grieving from their own losses as a harmonica wails in the background. But he retains a sense of optimism and gratefulness, eagerly awaiting the birth of his son. From this track we are given the album’s title: “What a world you have made here / What a terrible world, what a beautiful world.”
The Decemberists have released an album that combines parental insight with teenage hormonal angst and some light gore. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is an excellent album, and poised to be remembered as one of the best of 2015.