Deliberately not playing up to their name or any obvious marketing tie-ins, The Decemberists chose to release their last single, and album precursor, 'Make You Better' in November last year and this, their new album, in January. But then Portland's finest proponents of articulate, intellectual and evermore interesting indie folk-pop have probably always been trying to avoid the obvious with good cause.
On this, the band's seventh studio album, The Decemberists have lost none of their quirky individualistic and enigmatic charm. They may have ditched any notion of a particular concept for the album (other than not to have one) but they have lost none of their ability to superbly craft and deliver a poignant well told song.
Following on from the hugely successful album of 2011 'The King Is Dead', 'What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World' comes packed with some fabulously Decemberists styled stories brilliantly and beautifully played out as ever. As well as the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies that the band are loved and lauded for there are a few more besides, giving rise to a very startling album.
The lead off track, a tongue-in-cheek thank you to the loyalty of the fans, 'The Singer Addresses His Audience' hints at such, but 'Cavalry Captain' sees the band steering an altogether different course than some may be used to. The introduction of some fruity horns takes us back to a 70s Love Boat, mutated Manilow piano bar dinner dance whilst 'Philomena' gives us surf and 60s all girl harmonies, Doo-wop backing and Grease overtones in glorious innocent spades.
Not until we get to the first single, 'Make You Better', can you safely say that 'normal' service is resumed. The muted and subdued guitars brilliantly compliment the vocal and lyrical attitude of the song and the chorus is just so beautifully balanced. "But you're not so starry-eyed anymore, like the perfect paramour you were in your letters."
'Lake Song' continues adding to the quality fayre with a slice of melancholic regretful reminiscence before 'Better Not Wake The Baby' ups the tempo in a red-neck jamboree of duelling banjos and beats. 'Anti-Summer Song' gives us more to sing-a-long to as the fiddles fiddle and the harmonica adds some Blue Grass flavour. '27-12-12' sees it used to greater effect as the sadness of the story is played out through the torment and turmoil of its album name checking protagonist.
Where 'What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World' delivers up its finest though is on the majestic, harmonic, briefly Honky-Tonk flavoured 'Mistral', but especially on the stand-out track 'Carolina Low'. On this, the band's most stripped back track on the album, they can do no better. 'Carolina Low' is a fantastic piece of song writing exquisitely translated into a stupefying performance.
Eschewing the idea of conceptualising their new album has done The Decemberists no harm at all. I think they probably needed the break to relieve some of the added pressure. Subsequently, the band sound fresh, re-invigorated and still full of passion. The song writing, production and delivery are, in the most part, as good as ever. It may not be their very best but then not their very best is still better than most.
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