A while back I heard “Make You Better,” the lead single off The Decemberists latest record, and thought “Well, you had a great run.” The song just left me completely cold. For the first time I actually thought about just skipping a Decemberists record all together. But, as a long-time fan, Colin Meloy’s siren song was too much and I crashed into What A Terrible World, What A Wonderful World headfirst.
It’s a good thing I did, too, because this record is just as good as The King Is Dead. It might even be better. After the huge undertaking of rock opera The Hazards Of Love, King was a nice return to a simpler kind of music. Now that the band has had some time to recuperate, they’re back to making intricately designed pop songs delivered with the perfect precision you’d expect from the music making robots we all assume them to be.
The three songs that kick off the record all feel like they could be one long tune-like “The Tain,” without a narrative. “The Singer Addresses His Audience” is both an introduction to, and a summary of, what the album is about. A band growing and changing alongside their audience is a weird thing. A lot of people don’t want the band they love to start playing different kinds of music, they just want the band to stay the same forever. Others, most of us I think, like it when musicians we like try something new.
“We know, we know, we belong to ya
We know you grew your arms around us
And the hopes we wouldn’t change
But we had to change some
You know, to belong to you”
Further down the track list is “Til The Water’s All Long Gone.” Chris Funk opens it up with a gorgeous blues riff on the acoustic guitar accompanied by a second acoustic quietly laying down a strummed rhythm line. They’re joined in short order by Meloy’s voice, then many voices all at once. It’s quite the arrangement, marrying the delta blues with the shanty songs of which Meloy has always been so fond.
I honestly wasn’t looking forward to this album until I heard it. There’s something about The Decemberists that constantly makes me think the next one is gonna be bad. I guess after over a decade of putting out records I just assume at some point the quality of music will start to decline. That doesn’t happen here, though. Maybe they were re-energized by the return of Jenny Conlee after her battle with cancer. Or maybe they really are robots, programmed to constantly churn out well-written songs that never get old.
You can pick up a copy of What A Terrible World, What A Wonderful World on The Decemberists website. You can also find it on iTunes and Amazon, as well as streaming on Spotify. The band will be in the UK and Europe through February, and kick off a US tour on March 21st in Portland that’s scheduled to go in to the summer.