Colin Meloy and the Decemberists made a name for themselves with proggy excess, a twee skit-focused stage act, and a nerdist lyrical identity that’s more George R.R. Martin than George Jones. But the last few years have seen the band deviate from those tropes and shift toward brevity and greater conservatism. One could view their last album, The King Is Dead, which unexpectedly topped the charts four years ago, as a reactionary course correction after the tepid response engendered by 2009’s perhaps overly ambitious concept album The Hazards of Love; The King Is Dead’s familiar, congenial Americana sound, which could be described as “R.E.M. if they were a bunch of Appalachian folkies,” didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. But it can, and should, also be interpreted as the Decemberists coming to the keen realization that a well-executed three-chord folk-rock melody is no less inherently powerful or noble than a 16-minute song about a mystical bird woman.
The band again heeds that lesson on What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. Granted, the album is a much bigger sounding, musically diverse effort than its concise, uniform predecessor, featuring cellos, horns, and mellotrons, as well as a renewed focus on the versatile fretwork of lead guitarist Chris Funk, who was mostly relegated to the background last time around. The album is built on a series of wild stylistic vacillations, from the hushed folk of “Carolina Low” to the blaring discofied pop of “Cavalry Captain” to the classic rock of “Mistral.” At times, this relentless pursuit of diversity stretches the band a little too thin, as on the bland Nick Drake imitation “Lake Song” or the aforementioned “Cavalry Captain.” But through most of the proceedings, Meloy never loses sight of the supreme value of the three-minute pop song, keeping the focus on eminently sing-songy hooks and smart arrangements rather than narrative or instrumental superfluity.
This melodic deftness allows the songs to land even when their lineage to Meloy’s influences are a bit too obvious. Lead single “Make You Better” continues Meloy’s R.E.M. fixation, but instead of mimicking the tropes of that band’s ’80s output, which The King Is Dead adhered to so astutely (it even featured Peter Buck himself on a few tracks), the song conjures Automatic for the People, an album on which mechanistically tight musical hooks tempered Michael Stipe’s endless well of wide-eyed pathos. Meloy pulls off that same formula in almost unassailable fashion, without sacrificing his defining characteristics as a songwriter; Stipe would never sing such a blatantly romantic song, nor would he ever refer to anyone as a “perfect paramour.”
Perhaps What a Terrible World’s most singular trait in the context of the Decemberists’ catalogue is the emotionally unguarded, personal nature of some of its lyrical subject matter, which is far from the fanciful narratives of The Hazards of Love and The Crane Wife. This is epitomized on the slowly building opener “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” which is one of the more endearing pieces of meta commentary on the rock band/audience relationship since the Minutemen’s “History Lesson Part II.” It’s also a direct acknowledgement of the fans who may have hopped off the bandwagon when the group transitioned away from their brand of indie prog: “We know, we know, we belong to ya/We know you threw your arms around us/In the hopes we wouldn’t change/But we had to change some.”