Colin Meloy has always been far more interested in building narratives than delivering songs—in the Decemberists downtime he’s taken, he’s written a young adult trilogy that clocks in at 1,760 pages, for example—and What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World kicks off with an actual overview: the fourth-wall-breaking address/manifesto, “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” a heart-on-sleeve and tongue-in-cheek brag track about the band’s importance. That kind of metatextual referendum is well-placed as the entry into the album; What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is far more interested in the Decemberists brand than in creating memorable music. “Anti-Summersong” is the next-most direct reference to the band’s prior albums, with its chorus of “I’m not going on/Just to sing another summersong/So long, farewell/Don’t everybody fall all over themselves” name-checking past Decemberists’ track “Summersong.” Self-referential analysis is all well and good—but there’s something to be said for timeliness, and “Summersong” is about eight years too late as a rebuttal.
That sort of creative inertia carries through the whole album; there’s none of the energy of The King is Dead nor the lachrymose honesty of The Hazards of Love, just a patchy and cluttered enthusiasm that’s mirrored in the album’s quilted cover. By the time “Mistral” cuts in, as a kind of aesthetic counterpoint to “The Singer Addresses His Audience” that’s more concerned with the development of the band as musicians rather than philosophers, blending harmonica with choral swells and folky guitar, it’s a welcome encapsulation of what the band actually stands for musically. At its best, as in “Philomena,” a doo-wop poem to the narrator’s intended that’s more cheekily carpe carnum than anything, or in the spooky “Carolina Low,” the album has a casual kind of competence that’s appealing, but without the Americana stomp of The King is Dead or the stagey folklore of The Crane Wife to tie the album together, competence starts to look awfully empty.
Tracks to Watch: “A Beginning Song,” “Philomena,” “The Wrong Year,” “Mistral”
Tracks to Avoid: “Cavalry Captain,” “Better Not Wake the Baby,” “Lake Song,” “Easy Come, Easy Go”
Setting: Low-key spring porch-party
Beer pairing: Citrus IPA—disappointingly traditional, but with a strong finish