The past year has taught me that bands should never come back from hiatus. The Foo Fighters and Fall Out Boy have both released their albums since going on hiatus within the past six months, both of which were underwhelming to say the least.
The Decemberists are another band that has recently returned from hiatus and, like the Foo’s and Fall Out Boy, I have mixed feelings on their return.
The Decemberists are an American band whose musical genres range from progressive rock to modern-folk Americana, and their hyper-literate songs have ranged in subject from Japanese folk tales (“The Crane Wife Parts 1, 2 and 3”) to infanticide (“The Rake’s Song”) to revenge-murder inside a whale (“The Mariners Revenge Song”).
Despite the variations in sound and subject, the Decemberists have held constant the use of concept albums, narrative song structure and a commitment to musicianship in storytelling. These qualities make the band both refreshing and magical at the same time. Unfortunately, their new album “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” is lacking in all of these qualities to a degree.
However, this album is good in the sense that The Decemberists off their game are still more talented than most other bands out there, and this is the album’s saving grace. That being said, this album as a whole falls short of the caliber of quality expected of them
The lack of concept in the album is its crux. There are few bands who make successful concept albums and The Decemberists make absolutely beautiful ones, which is partially why their albums stand out among the noise of alternative rock.
The songs don’t flow together naturally and there is a lack of unified sound or underlying story. A lack of constraint can be good for creativity, but the effect of the free flowing structure resulted in an album that is sporadic, haphazard and even klutzy in nature. A change in song order could have helped the song flow, which would tremendously help the album.
At the song level, the album has some of the most beautiful and some of the worst songs The Decemberists have ever created. The songs can be classified into three categories — self-indulgent, throwback narrative and traditional songs.
The two self-indulgent songs on the album, “The Singer Addresses His Audience” and “Anti-Summersong,” are hollow both musically and lyrically. They are off-putting and drag the remaining tracks down with them.
The throwback narrative songs harken back to the song structure on The Decemberists’ previous albums. On this album, there are allusions to Tennyson in “Calvary Captain,” a lusty and raunchy song about oral sex in “Philomena” and a tale about the guardians of the fountain of youth in the “Till The Water’s All Long Gone.” These songs are where the Decemberists are at their best. They aren’t however as lethal or macabre as songs in the previous album where there are only two narrative songs about death (“Easy Come, Easy Go” and “Better Not Wake The Baby”).
The music of these songs enhances the storylines within them. The raunchy lyrics of “Philomena” is perfectly juxtaposed with a sing-song melody. The music of “Cavalry Captain” soars triumphantly with the lyrics elevating the mood of the album highlighting the song within it.
The more traditional songwriting is a distinct shift from their narrative style. These songs are more introspective in nature. They are harrowing, full of heart and radio-friendly. The core of this albums heart can be found in the songs “Make You Better” and “12/17/12.”
“Make You Better” is a radio-ready track about the hope of love and the cynicism that follows when love fades. The other song “12/17/12” is about the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown Connecticut.
“What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” is an amazing album in and of itself, but in the context of the Decemberists’ more unique previous work, it is just mediocre. Nonetheless, I am glad the Decemberists are back from hiatus and hopefully their next album will be up to their usual snuff.
ONLY RECOMMENDED IF: Even at their worst, The Decemberists are one of the best bands with some of the most artfully-crafted songs in music today.