The Decemberists have never settled for simple. Instead, they’ve released album after album of far-reaching, grand concepts: progg-y rock opera on “The Hazards of Love” (2009), pastoral Americana on “The King is Dead” (2011). All were mythical, theatrical and meticulously crafted.
In “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World,” released on Jan. 20, we finally see the Portland nerd-rockers reclining in their chairs. The concept of the album here is anything but far-reaching and theatrical — just a friendly blend of campfire folk for the smart set. It’s a relaxed, refreshing, slow strum of a record, shaded with easygoing hymns and cutesy hums. These songs are more agreeable than anything The Decemberists have put out before. Unfortunately, they’re also more forgettable.
“What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” leans heavily on the band’s established literary rep. The Decemberists have already dug out, occupied and ruled over a niche of bookish indie crooners, and the band’s seventh LP nestles into this habit like a well-worn argyle sweater. Instead of a love interest, “Terrible World, Beautiful World” has a “perfect paramour” penning letters. Lead singer Colin Meloy, adopting the persona of a 17-year-old in “Lake Song,” isn’t awkward but “terminally fey” as he watches his crush, “all sibylline, reclining in [her] pew.” (Given his penchant for storytelling lyrics, it comes as no surprise that Meloy has been spending his downtime dreaming up “The Wildwood Chronicles” (2011), a fantastically illustrated children’s book series).
So it’s with a little bit of irony that the new release is hailed as their most radio-friendly collection to date. We still hear all the same whiny croons and erudite references, but this time they’re layered under campfire refrains that no longer demand acute attention. “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” comes off as a gentle blending of all the group’s previous concepts into sugary-sweet, easy listening. The result is a softer impact from what you might call the Decemberists Lite™ — an album that might as well be the soundtrack to the life of a lackadaisical indie film protagonist.
Still, the subtlety isn’t always such a bad thing. Kicking off with “The Singer Addresses His Audience” and “Cavalry Captain,” the band proves they’re still more interested in ultra-specific storytelling than lazy tropes. They open with Rilo Kiley-esque melodies that alternate between lead singer Colin Meloy and accordion player Jenny Conlee, who hum “ooos” and “laaas” in the sweetest way possible. There are pulses of trumpets, poppy major chords and immediately reachable beats that sound like hands thumping against school desks. Their corny, clever lyrics (“I am the remedy to your heart / I am imprinted upon your stars”) build up to a quiet Pearl Jam epicness: Intense yet likeable in their earnest simplicity.
“What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” hits its gentle stride with tracks like “Till the Water’s All Long Gone.” Meloy slowly unfurls into a candle-lit melancholy, and, slightly off-key, it makes for a beautiful descent toward darker twang. It’s here that the album is most reminiscent of classic-era Decemberists, recalling gems like 2005’s “The Bagman’s Gambit.”
If only the “Terrible World, Beautiful World” maintained a happy medium, instead of drifting further into minimalistic ease. Middle songs “Carolina Low” and “The Wrong Year” reveal a pretty boring indulgence in the overly uncomplicated, as if the Decemberists set themselves on cruise control. For fans of their usual sea-shanty grit, these watery hymns will come off as an easy shortcut, soothing at best.
And at worst (see: ninth track, “Better Not Wake the Baby”), the album teeters on the edge of wince-worthy folk schlock. Listeners can either buy into the saccharine, toe-tapping melodies or cringe at them like a bad joke when they wax philosophical on teen love and oral sex (“Philomena”). It’s really too bad when a band grows older and loses its edge, and hopefully The Decemberists won’t continue to equate maturity with flabby, lazy and overly-polished pleasantries.
Still, “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” glimmers with undeniable wit. Even in its most tiresome bits, these tunes are both catchy and nuanced. The Decemberists’ albums have always opened up like storybooks, with crowned king of lit-rock, Meloy, sitting on a throne of clever folksy quips and dancing, theatrical myths.
This new release is certainly no exception; it will sit comfortably in The Decemberists’ catalogue. Admittedly, there’s a noticeable lack of risk-taking, and fans will start to miss the gripping twines and minor, heart-turning melodies of “Picaresque” (2005) and “The Crane Wife” (2006). This next chapter for the Decemberists, made up of an overflow of amicable acoustics, will keep listeners swaying along for another album. “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” is no less enjoyable than all the others, if only a forgettable bridge between them.