The Decembrists of history were a group of 3000 soldiers who staged an unsuccessful rebellion against Russian Tsar Nicholas I in 1825. Whether or not the similarly named Decemberists have maintained a rebellious streak may be up for debate, as they have been welcomed into the mainstream, at least in Portland, Oregon. To coincide with the release of their new long player, the mayor of the band’s home city officially declared 20 January to be Decemberists Day. In Portland’s odd style, the official proclamation was drafted by author Lemony Snicket and asserts that each song is ‘a mingling of hope, perseverance, and other stalwart emotions associated with indie rock’. Despite that statement, there is much more than indie rock to be found on What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World..
Soon after their last album, 2011’s The King is Dead went straight to the top of the US Billboard Chart, the Decemberists announced a hiatus from their hectic schedule. They continued to be active while resting, releasing an outtakes EP and a live album, contributing to the soundtrack of the Hunger Games and making guest starring appearances in TV comedies the Simpsons and Parks and Recreation. Reconvening proper during spring 2013 and without a timetable to produce what would become their eighth album, the band was able to allow the songs to come together naturally.
The resulting record begins appropriately enough with The Singer Addresses His Audience, a wry, knowing observation of the extent of fans’ adoration that amply demonstrates songwriter Colin Meloy’s newly inward-looking, soul-searching approach to his lyrics. Following a gently strummed guitar introduction, the music builds to a crescendo of electric guitar and piano, with a sing along chorus of backing vocals also thrown into the mix.
Cavalry Captain’s breezy, summery brass blast intro is reminiscent of the Boo Radleys’ Wake Up Boo! but this happy-sounding song deals with the depressing fleetingness of life. Meanwhile, Philomena has the familiar hallmarks that point to a Phil Spector production, which was an influence explored during the recording. Lush layers of strings and backing vocals, with a British beat group-like warbling vocal give the song an upbeat early 60s flavour. The subject matter might have raised more than a few eyebrows back then though, as the narrator describes his desire to see a naked girl who will allow him into her linen lap.
The musical influences that make up this album offer an overview of the Decemberists’ many talents. Better Not Wake the Baby could be a traditional English sea shanty: ‘Use your skull like a cannon ball/But it better not wake the baby’; Easy Come, Easy Go evokes Link Wray’s clean, twangy guitar and 12-17-12 makes sombre use of blues harmonica. It is that song that is perhaps the most notable, being inspired by the date that President Obama addressed America after the Newtown school shootings. The sense of helplessness moved Meloy to write about the loss and grief of others while he anticipated the arrival of a new life, producing the phrase that gave the album its title.
What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is a terrific collection of addictive songs whose uplifting sound often belies their dark, unpleasant lyrics, reflecting perfectly the contrast in the album’s title. Their decision to let the songs progress naturally rather than writing to the clock has produced an astonishing work. Play it often and loud – but you better not wake the baby.
Review by: Roy Spencer
Out Now via Rough Trade