Following a four-year recording hiatus, anticipation for the Decemberists’ latest full-length release is undoubtedly high. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World sees the band return in their trademark literary folk rock form while managing to throw in a few surprises along the way. Following the slow dynamism of opening track ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’, the album breaks fully into its pop stride with ‘Cavalry Captain’, in which a triumphant fanfare hook does battle with frontman Colin Meloy’s historically-inspired narrative. There is certainly no hint of the Decemberists abandoning the archaic lyrical imagery for which they are known; yet Meloy showcases a particularly nuanced approach when blending this with a more personal writing style. The accordion and guitar combo of sea-shanty-inspired stomper, ‘Better Not Wake the Baby’, could easily have come from a traditional English folk song, yet its lyrics hint at Meloy’s personal experiences of fatherhood.
The 60s-style soul of ‘Philomena’ takes the band in an unexpected turn from their characteristic folk rock sound, but one that is surprisingly welcome, as they pay homage to the stylistic conventions of songwriters past. There is a relaxed air to the album, indicating that as the individual band members grow older, they are still clearly in it for the enjoyment. This shift away from the purely narrative folk ballads of the band’s early days may prove unpopular for some, this is by no means a step backwards, as the introspective acoustic elements provide a healthy balance to the catchier numbers. Though the inspiration for the songs may be different, the band’s sound has diversified, showing that the Decemberists are not content in becoming a tired indie-rock institution. As Meloy sings in ‘Anti-Summersong’, in a nod to ‘Summersong’ from their 2006 album The Crane Wife, ‘I’m not going on just to sing another sing-a-long, suicide song.’