The Decemberists have always aimed their sights at bookish fans who wanted music to be significant, who were interested in legends and myths and theatre and thesauruses. Instead of feeling good in a Decemberists song, there was “a rush of ripe élan,” and it wasn’t just seeing some girls over there, it was “15 lithesome maidens lay along in their bower.” The vellum-bound folios of Colin Meloy’s songs are full of heightened verse that make them fun in the same way that Kate Bush singing about Heathcliff and Cathy, or Peter Gabriel’s cape from “Watcher of the Skies”, or swirling wine around in a glass is fun. There’s so much joy, however affected, in Meloy’s language: It’s camp for fans of Hawthorne.
The Decemberists also have a habit of over-correcting. The tripartite song suite on 2006’s The Crane Wife was blown out of proportion into an exhausting prog opus on The Hazards of Love in 2009. Then they bounced back in an exercise in restraint with their previous album, the ambling and dusty The King Is Dead. It was a necessary addition to the band’s canon, and a concept album in so far as it was proof that they could just write a few songs without culling themes from Elizabethan texts or Japanese folk tales. On their seventh LP, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, they balance out and cruise down the middle of the road, sounding more like a polite, modern folk rock band with only a touch of antiquity here and there. It’s a charming but predictable album aimed at the faithful, but provides few if any new tracks that measure up to those in their back catalog.
Part of what made their first several albums so entertaining was both that unique counterpoint and, well, they were kinda fun. There was a joie de vivre in the way Meloy sang “joie de vivre” on his first album in his signature voice that turned every simple vowel into a triphthong. Lovesick soldiers, chimbly sweeps, lovers’ suicide, a mom whoring herself out for money to a ship of sailors: It was nothing if not entertaining.
Now the Decemberists seem wrapped up in themselves, wistful and mature, careful not to become caricatures while also trying to push their sound forward. The one new impulse they find here is meta songwriting. In some world it might be fun to hear a band sing about how they “had to change some” to keep those bookish fans and put in a cute line about selling out for Axe shampoo, but turns out it’s quite a bit more grating than the errant Victorian quirk. That’s how the album opens, “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, with another kind of cuteness and it’s hardly any fun at all.
The self-reflexive angle comes up again on “Anti-Summersong”, a reference to their “Summersong” from The Crane Wife. “I’m not going on just to sing another sing-a-long, suicide song,” Meloy sings, a flippant but not entirely serious jibe at his past. The tune is orchestrated like a traditional Stephen Foster folk tune, with square fiddle lines, a little banjo, a plucked acoustic guitar, and a true Americana harmonica solo. It’s more of the same roots feel they put to work on The King Is Dead, but everything feels a little paler and undercooked. The band’s live-tracking and Meloy’s plea to just move on from his past attempt to break new ground, but outside of a few lite rafter shakers, so much of what may pass for tuneful songwriting here is mostly just pleasant and formless outlines of songs.
But they had to change, and Meloy doesn’t want to sing about lovers’ suicide pacts anymore, so we get Meloy the dreamer, Meloy the ponderous, Meloy the contemplative. Some tracks are more autobiographical, like the literally effortless “Lake Song”, recalling a snapshot of lakeside love when Meloy was 17 and “terminally fey.” The only anchor to its saccharine lines (“You were full and sweet as honeydew”) is an acoustic guitar strumming in a rhythm that was perfected by kids in college dorm rooms years ago. It’s followed immediately by “Till the Water’s All Long Gone”, a narrative-based tune that wanders around in 6/8 and is quite possibly about protecting the fountain of youth from a tribe of hill folk.
Those big sing-a-longs of the past now scan more power pop and less sea shanty. “Make You Better” might as well be the New Pornographers, especially with the use of Kelly Hogan and Rachel Flotard as back-up vocalists, who add beautiful harmonies at the climax. The band has never lacked the musical bona fides to write a great anthem. And here it’s not a macabre, smirking tale about military wives or some Spanish monarch, but a song about how prescribing love is by no means a way to fix our own problems. You start to see Meloy himself more than ever, and it’s at once refreshing and a little unsettling how much he still hides behind poeticism.
But the failure of this album, in addition to being overlong and under-ambitious, is the idea that maturity should beget lazy, hammock songs. Some songs were written as long as four years ago, just after The King Is Dead. There’s pleasure in feeling time pass on the album, but it passes so slowly, and at some points, interminably. The pro forma folk-rock of the entire thing is a slog. Of course the marks of the Decemberists are still there: A nod to Tennyson (“Cavalry Captain”), a lazy obsession with style (for things are both ill- and misbegotten), a healthy vocabulary (prevaricate, sibylline, eidolon), and the cheeky and bawdy song about oral sex (“Philomena”). But gone is the wild-eyed, fearless, nerdy-ass band who once said “fuck it we’re gonna do a 10-minute song about a revenge-murder inside whale.” To borrow a theme from the album, this is the part of the the Decemberists’ story where you skim to the next chapter.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1B7hoon