The Decemberists dalliance with prog rock in 2009 on “Hazards of Love” was short lived and it appears that it did them little harm. Their last album 2011’s “The King of Dead” saw Colin Meloy concentrate on producing wonderful songs with big choruses that gave them there first US number one record. The underpinning folk roots to this band remain and Meloy’s rich voice places them a significant notch higher than many of their counterparts. With this new album “What a terrible word, what a beautiful world” the overall excellence of this band shows no sign of diminution.
The band are no longer shy in pitching their songs in a radio friendly direction and the slightly REM feel on “Make you better” repeats some of the folksy Americana of “King is Dead. The flowing single “The Wrong door” is classic Decemberists circa “Picaresque” and instantly accessible. The deeper rewards come however in songs where Meloy reprises some of his previous obsessions not least a fascination with music of the era of the American Civil War. Thus “Carolina Low” has a haunting timeless quality to it and builds on some of the work Meloy did on the “Inside Llewyn Davis” concert album. The longest song here is “Lake Song” and captures that gorgeous acoustic vibe that Meloy nailed on songs like “June Hymn”. It is a gem that sees a classic Decemberists template with a song that is catchy yet nuanced which eventually grows to tug at your emotions. The song “12-17-12”, is an harmonica driven acoustic ballad inspired by the there terrible school shootings at Sandy Hook where Meloy concludes with the regretful sentiment “And oh my God / What a world you would make here / What a terrible world, what a beautiful world / What a world you have made here”. Others like “Anti Summersong” doesn't appear to bear any relationship to “The Crane Wife’s” joyous “Summersong” but is a nice sing-along anthem all the same. One small grievance is that a couple of songs, with “Mistral” being an obvious candidate, which fall into the category of good but not great. Equally some of that quirkiness that the band used to capture in tracks like “Bagman’s Gambit” and “I was meant for the stage” has been smoothed and is in danger of disappearing (although “Philomena” is in that tradition). Nonetheless this is mostly nit picking as “What a terrible word, what a beautiful world” once again confirms the status of The Decemberists as one of America’s best bands
The Decemberists tour the UK in February 2015 and this reviewer is overjoyed to have a ticket at the ready. In this setting songs like the glorious horn driven “Calvary Captain” will no doubt become huge live favourites. The Decemberists have once again produced an album of infectious mature songs and it is delightful to welcome them back after a long four year wait.
Review by Red on Black