It’s cliche by now that when listening to the Decemberists, you may need to keep a dictionary or reference book (or, you know, Google) by your side. The lexicon and historical and mythological knowledge of the band, and in particular lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy has been well-tread. As is the case for their previous album, “The King Is Dead,” the Decemberists employ no giant concept on this album, but stretch for songs that ring a little more personable, although the verbosity of the lyrics always serves as somewhat of a safety net for vulnerability. This is the rare record that is unspectacular, but worth repeated listens — if only to understand all of Meloy’s diction and references. It is by no means a bad album — in fact it’s pretty good. Although not very ambitious, the group’s seventh LP, “What a Beautiful World, What a Terrible World,” will solidify your quota of B to B-plus (and maybe a couple of A’s) Decemberist songs, even if there’s no “The Infanta” or “Sons and Daughters” here.
The album begins with the simple, mostly acoustic “The Singer Addresses His Audience.” Tongue planted firmly in cheek, Meloy sings, “So when your bridal processional / Is a televised confessional / To the benefits of Axe shampoo / And we did it for you / We did it all for you.” Though the song laughs at itself with lines like this, there is a genuine feeling of appreciation apparent as the song blooms into a large chorus section chanting about belonging to the fans.
Lead single “Make You Better” follows another relatively basic folk-rock template, but once again does it well. Lyrics lamenting a fading relationship and asking oneself, “Did it make you better,” cast a spotlight of self-awareness not usually seen in break-up songs. A haunting synth accompanies solemn but upbeat guitar and piano throughout the track.
Other highlights include the deceptively dirty “Philomena,” the ironically cheery “Anti-Summersong” and the moving tribute to the Newtown shooting victims, “12/17/12.” At 14 songs, the album comes close to overstaying its welcome, as its fairly basic template accompanied by Meloy’s great, but sometimes exhausting, lyrics can require some brainwork.
This album presents a perplexing question — is an album great when all its songs are above average to occasionally great? The logical answer would be no, but this album pushes that question to its edges, as very solid craft is presented on almost every song. I suppose what may be missing is that unspoken intangible that the best albums manage to reveal to you.
While occasionally impressive, “What A Beautiful World, What A Terrible World,” never fully ascends to the level of its potential. It is a fully enjoyable and fun album, and a worthy entry into the band’s catalog — but not album-of-the-year material. Top 10 or 20? Sure. Two albums into shying away from concepts and large-scale folklore, I won’t say the Decemberists should revert back completely to their old ideas — but they shouldn’t be afraid of taking risks on a larger scale with their new, more personal focus. As Meloy sings in “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” “We know, we know, we belong to ya / We know you built your life around us / Would we change, we had to change some.”
Rating: 3.75 stars