Upon first listening to this album, it’s difficult to believe that this is the same band who released The Hazards of Love in 2009. Mainly acoustic in nature, this is clearly a developed and mature album, repeating again the consistently more relaxed and easy-paced vibe the band started to produce in their 2011 album The King Is Dead, but with an extra sprinkling of confidence and exploration. Less stripped back than the product of their 2011 workings, Colin Meloy and his team seem to have found a way around the general misconception that complex use of instruments and a wall of sound are mutually exclusive.
It’s clear that The Decemberists have been expanding their horizons; the wisdom that comes with the experience of 6 previous albums sounds like it has been knitted into every detail of this wholesome and organic collection. Featuring the honest lyrics of a writer who’s had time to look back and reflect (a prime example arising in ‘Lake Song’ – ‘Now we arise to curse those young suburban villains and their ill-begotten children from the lawn’), the album is emotionally touching and easy to engage with no matter what your music taste is.
It can’t be ignored though that a bit more variety would be sorely welcome. Yes, each song on the album is well executed, complex and well written in its own right. However with fourteen tracks all together, that all seem to have an identical underlying tone, the album feels like it’s longer than it needs to be, and where you would expect such quality song writing and expert use of combining of instruments to counteract this, it unfortunately doesn’t. A few darker, bass heavy, tones here and there could have made this a considerably more exciting listen.
The album has been produced by highly acclaimed producer Tucker Martine, who has worked extensively with Sujfan Stevens. One thing about What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World that shouts loud and clear is that fact that Martine has clearly – intentionally or not – tried to paint a Stevens picture on a Decemberists canvas, and although the result isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it has definitely taken away from the trademark ‘Decemberists’ sound that we expected from this album. At least we can be greatful that Meloy and Martine left out the Age of Adz ‘organic electronics’ that Stevens haphazardly and so awkwardly tried to execute.
The Decemberists have long started to grow out of the darker and more melancholic indie rock of The Hazards of Love that has been so popular and seemingly unique in an ocean of bands sailing the ‘indie rock’ flag. Watching a band develop and grow can often strike doubt, with so many veering off into unknown territory where they do not fare well, but The Decemberists have definitely aged with a certain amount of grace despite this misguided folk experimentation, and, despite doubts about Martine’s influence on this record, The Decemberists have deftly avoided becoming lost in the 2014 rebirth of trivial indie rock.
What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World was definitely not what we were expecting from The Decemberists, but, with so many bands producing now their sound of 5 years ago, this album definitely represents a progression and a development that means they’re unlikely to be overlooked any time soon.