February is probably an odd time to make such bold proclamations, but odds are slim that there’s going to be a more cognizant, witty introduction than “we’re aware that you cut your hair in the style that our drummer wore in the video, so when your bridal processional is a televised confessional to the benefits of Axe shampoo, you know we did it for you.” Granted, Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy has always been a gifted lyricist, but there’s a crackling poignancy in these remarks given the lukewarm reception dealt to the band’s previous album, “The King is Dead.” Thoroughly cutting away any trace of grandiose theatrics, The Decemberists’ first venture into modern Americana marked new territory – and betrayal to those expecting another slab of eclectic excursions. By splitting the fanbase in this manner, “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” is immediately saddled with unenviable expectations. Uniting such diametrically opposed factions of followers is never easy, but then again, the Decemberists have never been ones to take the easy way out. Remarkably, almost impossibly, the band’s seventh album expertly plays to both sides without splitting at the seams.
Marking a welcome return to the bombastic instrumentation threaded throughout 2005’s “Picaresque,” half the record plays like an endearing ode to the Decemberists’ legacy. “Cavalry Captain,” for instance, compliments the galvanized bounce of its chorus with swelling horns and pounding percussion, not only making for an excellent kickstart, but a return to the energized songwriting legions of fans have come to expect from Meloy and company. Delving deeper into the tracklist takes listeners into the oral sex hymn “Philomena,” a retro-style ditty replete with accentuated feminine vocalizations coursing throughout. Songs such as these would feel right at home on the band’s earlier, more audacious and ambitious albums, and it’s a welcome return to hear this side of the The Decemberists once more, even if it’s only for a while.
While much of “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” dedicates itself to reverent throwbacks, the album also spends considerable time expanding upon the pastoral aesthetic debuted on the band’s previous record. Naysayers may raise initial objections to revisiting the rustic, bare-bones aesthetic of 2011’s “The King is Dead,” but these songs stand shoulders above their predecessors, better written and more affecting. No song better exemplifies this thorough improvement than “Lake Song,” which quickly posits itself as one of the band’s most emotionally draining cuts to date. Meloy’s lamentation of “and you, all sibylline, reclining in your pew, you tattered me, you tethered me to you” is a wrenching ode to young love, a rare side of the band not often peeked through the thick curtains of literary indulgences and arcane references. Elsewhere, “Easy Come, Easy Go” finds the band comfortably settled into a rural romp of bluesy guitar licks and countrified lyrical turns.
Setting these multiple, disparate elements of the Decemberists’ sonic pallet side-by-side might seem like a venture doomed to failure. After all, if debate among the band’s followers can’t single out a particular album as the discography’s cornerstone, how could any of them fall in line for an album playing to each with little regard for sense or cohesion? Somehow, though, they just might. On “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World,” the Decemberists have crafted a stark reminder of just why they’re so admired in the first place. This is a band that’s cherished not for its consistency in stylistics, but for its seemingly effortless penning of great songs. Fortunately, that shows no sign of stopping.