Erudite and punctilious, Portland, Oregon act The Decemberists emerged in the early ’00s, polarizing from the outset. Frontman Colin Meloy used his nasal croon to captivate legions of ardent acolytes, capturing the hearts of Smiths and R.E.M. fans alike with his whip-smart lyrics and a keen ear for inventive melodic structure, while simultaneously alienating his fair share of listeners due to his arcane literary references and acquired-taste vocal style. But The Decemberists gained a certain critical and commercial capital that allowed them to blossom artistically at an organic level, from their years on indie Kill Rock Stars onto their major-label relationship with Capitol. This paid dividends for them in the long-term, when their last album, 2011’s The King Is Dead, implausibly debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. albums chart. Its follow-up, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World, is more haphazard than its predecessor, but an all-around superior effort, exhibiting Meloy’s knack for universal connectedness, replete with his most personal lyrics to date. It’s also the band’s most self-aware album, coming to terms with its broad audience without cheaply pandering via immediately digestible MP3 cuts.
Throughout Terrible/Beautiful, Meloy delves into intimate subject matter with a tender pathos. Gone are the equivocal homages to Irish mythology and prog opuses akin to The Tain and The Hazards Of Love. He instead focuses on abject grief, producing a collection of self-reflexive songs for insane times. This focus is most explicit on “12/17/12,” his wide-eyed response to the Newtown, Connecticut killings, from which the album finds its title. The number achieves a deep emotional wallop, knocking the wind from your sails as a wheezing harmonica ushers in an affecting lament on the here-today, gone-in-an-instant ephemeral nature of existence, deftly avoiding being ham-fisted on a lightning-bolt-charged topic.
“We know you built your life around us / And would we change? / We had to change some you know to belong to you,” sings Meloy on opener “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” repeating “to belong” with perfunctory ambivalence and a mantra-like hypnosis over a gentle acoustic strum that swells into discordant swirls of feedback and braying strings, setting a template for the album. Terrible/Beautiful cuts to the marrow of just how significant music can be when well-versed in pop’s rich vocabulary. Meloy acerbically boasts, “I’ll be your candle and I’ll be your statuette” on the Spector-esque doo-wop of “Philomena,” keenly aware of the track’s lofty, larger-than-life sentiment. Rock’s not going to change the world, and Meloy recognizes this. But he realizes that the people who love music might, and he provides a galvanizing flicker of hope on this collection of torch ballads.
The Decemberists have forged a distinct path over seven albums, defining a singular yet disparate sound, which is no easy feat. Terrible/Beautiful may not be their greatest triumph, but may be their most rewarding in a long-term sense. A decade from now, listeners may be discussing this album in the same rarified breath as Hazards Of Love and Picaresque. For now, it’s a record that gets better with each listen, a present-day anomaly. It’s the sound of a band unafraid of taking chances, and succeeding more often than not.