Review: The Decemberists’ “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World”


It’s been four years since the last album from The Decemberists

It’s good to have you back, Decemberists.

Their last album, 2011’s The King Is Dead, was in many ways very un-Decemberists, but it had its moments. Now, with What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, The Decemberists have found a way to mesh the folksy narrative elements of their older material while retaining the commercial accessibility of The King is Dead.

The result is a quite cohesive and actually quite good album. Prime cuts include “Make You Better” (video below), “Philomena,” “Anti-Summersong,” and “Better Not Wake The Baby,” which is my personal favorite. Interestingly, “Anti-Summersong” is one of two songs from this album that are very self-reflexive (the other being “The Singer Addresses His Audience”), showing that the band is acutely aware of their fans and of the innate desire shared by fans of all bands for bands to return to their old sound.

In stark contrast to The King is Dead’s relatively restrained instrumentation, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, finds the band letting loose, a welcome return to form for a band who’s spent most of its career crafting songs with bold, rich, and multilayered instrumentation. The band still shows restraint, though. “Lake Song” and “Carolina Low” are built simply on gentle acoustic guitar and vocals. Also back into the fold is the display of singer-songwriter Colin Meloy’s immense vocabulary; this album contains both the words “paramour” and “prevaricate,” among others.

While this album is far from The Decemberists’ best, it serves as a rousing sign that, though The King is dead, The Decemberists certainly aren’t.