I don’t think that with most albums, you can label exactly where they misstep, but on What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World — the Decemberists’ latest offering — it’s clear. The opening song’s entitled “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, which is its first problem. It’s either a too-sly, winking indictment of capitalism, a completely honest statement of how little frontman Colin Meloy thinks of you and me…or it’s both. “We know you built your life around us,” Meloy sings. “When your bridal processional / Is a televised confessional / To the benefits of Axe shampoo / You know we did it for you.” It’s a Brechtian alienation effect, maybe, except that everything that follows is usual Decemberists fare, so we’re left scratching our heads and feeling vaguely insulted, rather than having profound thoughts on the nature of celebrity.
This highlights what is, for me, the primary problem of the Decemberists: they make beautiful music and tell interesting stories with it, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something inauthentic there. Colin Meloy is a forty-year old dude from Montana with unfortunate hipster glasses and an English degree, and I can’t ever forget that while listening to him or his music. He’s at his best when he allows himself expressions of deep pain or emotion, which, ironically, he only seems to achieve when telling other people’s stories and avoiding any honest presentation of himself. Little in the Decemberists’ work shakes me to my core or makes me feel much. Listening to a Decemberists album feels like peeking in on other people’s stories – stories that may be quite good, but stories that have nothing to do with the band or its members.
And sadly, What a Terrible World doesn’t change that. There are a lot of pretty folk songs in here, and some I even like quite a bit. “Till the Water is All Gone” has a jazzy feel and subtle use of what sounds like an electric organ; “Make You Better”, its first single, is merely pleasant until the song unveils an animalian, distressing sax near the end that makes my hackles rise delightfully. But I wouldn’t call either a standout track, and there don’t seem to be any here. The lyrics are nice throughout, and sometimes clever. The instrumentals are fine; I like the fingerpicking plenty. But that’s about it; it’s an album full of pretty songs about other people’s stories, and none of them hit home. And when the album has set the stage with such cynicism and contempt, it’s hard to not grate my teeth throughout and feel like I’m being treated badly. (And do not get me started about “Philomena”, a deeply squicky and unsexy song about sex that seems to think it’s witty. I’m still not sure why I dislike it so much; it might be because I can’t lie back and think of England when the band’s disdain is still fresh on my mind.)
“We had to change some, you know, to belong to you,” Meloy sings in that problematic first track. Did they change? Well, the sound’s maybe a little more mature and confident. That’s about it. Short of that, I can’t shake the feeling that the Decemberists are phoning it in, and just happened to churn out Generic Decemberists Album #7. Also, they have complete contempt for us. Maybe.