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The Decemberists emerge from darkness with consistent, personal new album

By Grace Kelly / Staff Writer

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The Decemberists

What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World 

Grade: B+ 

The Decemberists descended into Dante’s nine circles of hell and just returned, enlightened and with a new album in hand. It’s not that The Decemberists’ past albums have been poor — on the contrary, they were deep, heady and profoundly dark, but they had tunes that were occasionally a bit stale.

The folk lifers commendably emerged from this pit of darkness with their latest album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, markedly different from all their past endeavors. The title alone seems to signify a shift in the band’s mentality, a tale of tough times passed but also of the sweet pulp beneath the bittersweet rind that encases it all. 

But they don’t leave all the darkness behind, and brief flashes of the deep undertones that laced the band’s past work adds heft to this newfound freshness. The contrasts blend smoothly, shining a mild rose light on lyrics that sing of the simple things in life. 

The album starts out with the mildly humorous “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” which begins quietly and then builds and crescendoes with strong riffs, revving up the rest of the album. Heavy guitar bursts and a chorus add power and a crashing finale closes the album intro — unabashedly and with style. 

“Cavalry Captain” continues this animated attitude while remaining true to the band’s desire to reference historical figures and terminology. As you listen, you can’t help but imagine a cavalry captain figure, such as General Custer of Little Bighorn fame, astride on his horse, horns trumpeting behind him as he swoops down to rescue his lover. 

Poppy horns, light background vocals and silky lyrics shape this image as frontman Colin Meloy drawls, “I am the cavalry captain/ I am the remedy to your heart,” and “we’ll away at the break of day/ and if only for a second/ and if only for a time … we’ll be alive.” True to his promise, the song ends with the cavalry captain spiriting you away in his velvet arms. 

While the preceding tracks introduce The Decemberists’ intentions for a lighter, sprightlier album, the track that truly hits the mark is “Philomena.” It is a breezy song about a man with a simple fantasy:  “All I wanted in the world/ was to live to see a naked girl.” 

He then has a growing realization that there is more out there than his youthful desires — “But I found I quickly bored/ I wanted more.” Meloy’s singsong tune draws the listener into its swing with images of never-ending summer, linens fluttering on a clothesline and the incessant hum of the birds and the bees. This is joyful Decemberists at its best, with lush dips, staccato piano taps and a newfound playfulness. 

The one straining attribute of an otherwise refreshing album is that it’s unnecessarily long — fourteen tracks isn’t something everyone can pull off, unless, perhaps, the album is the Greatest Hits collection of some award-winning band. Here, the excessive number of tracks is a drag, with some dead weight including “Mistral” (muddled, flat and sinking back into the band’s former melancholy) and “Better Not Wake the Baby.” The latter has a pleasant tune, but the lyrics make it seem like a perversely dark, rhyme-heavy folk song by a morbid children’s singer. It’s like an Irish folksong, complete with accordion, but with lyrics like, “use your skull like a cannonball, but it better not wake the baby.” 

Even with these drags, The Decemberists are moving upwards, exiting the netherworld and its dark imagery, slowly ascending the steps to heaven. The band does so with a bounce in its step, a trumpet in hand and a catchy soundtrack along the way.

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The Decemberists emerge from darkness with consistent, personal new album