Album | The Decemberists – What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World


The Decemberists might be pushed to beat their own mid-­00s output, but this is a band that has stayed true to their roots and continue to make compelling folk music. Their new record comes exactly four years since The King Is Dead – the largest gap between any of the band’s studio putput – and even down to the title wears its heart on its sleeve. That the title is a quote taken from a speech given by US President Barack Obama after the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in 2012 tells us even more about the band. To take a stand, to draw attention to social and political topics, is something perhaps too few acts are willing to do. There is a lot here to love and the content is close enough to the old blueprint that fans of the band will wholly welcome this return. But if anything the band have matured, which isn’t a bad thing at all.

From the opening notes of ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience,’ it’s obviously the sound of the band we came to love over a decade ago, even if it includes shades of Neutral Milk Hotel’s seminal In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. This lilting folk-pop gem is a gentle way to kick off the album, but quickly takes flight as the band get into full flow. Perhaps this 14-song set was so long in coming because the band really wanted to fill the silence with something golden rather than just anything. That’s exactly what has happened and this is a treasure trove for long-time fans.

‘Cavalry Captain’ has a chorus as catchy as anything. It encapsulates the focus of this record, which feels so precisely weighted and the balance and execution of pop and folk is wondrous. Colin Meloy is the captain, in complete control of where the vessel is going. As the record progresses it feels like a set of everything the band does so well. It’s not revolutionary, but it plays to the band’s strengths and becomes clear it’s one of the best records that The Decemberists have ever made.

‘Lake Song’ is more than a little influenced by Nick Drake, sounding like one of his songs being covered, in fact. It’s no bad thing, if a little unexpected. It’s good to still see his influence expanding through modern popular music. It’s the piano that is most telling, as if Nick Drake’s ghost might even be tinkling the ivories. It’s another wonderful track nonetheless. ‘Easy Come Easy Go’ is so simple and yet delights. When the 50s style country rock guitar solo ignites it polishes off a lovely little song.

’12/17/12′ signifies the date of mourners holding vigils for the lost lives in the Newtown school shootings, which took place on December 14, 2012. A 20-year-old man had opened fire and ended the lives of 20 children and six adults. The song is poignant, powerful and loaded with heartfelt lyrics, both from the band’s sensitive armoury and Obama’s speech at the time. To have borne the album title and then so simply pointed to both the good and bad of the world, and in mankind, is an unavoidable truth of life, and stands to show how much life matters to this band and their fans. It’s a simple moment and yet stirringly profound. It’s a lovely tribute to those who lost lives and the families of those people. It feels like the album’s nucleus, and is followed by the final track ‘A Beginning Song,’ which feels like something being born out of the previous disaster, and perhaps symbolises the birth of something new, and how that always follows death and tragedy, just as sunshine always follows rain.

It’s nice to have the band back, to hear that social and political topics affect their lives and are worth bringing to the forefront of their music, whilst still balancing everything the band has always been so good at. The sound has matured but lost nothing of its appeal nor its heart and soul. It’s a return to form and an album to give many a spin to throughout the year.