Colin Meloy is an incredible lyricist. It’s what made and continues to make The Crane Wife my favorite album of all time, it incidentally being the first Decemberists album I heard. My wife and I were driving from Ohio to Wyoming to go see Yellowstone when I bought the CD, one of only three we brought with us for the entire trip. The car we rented had a six CD disc changer, something which admittedly blew my mind at the time as both miraculous and exorbitant, and we began each new day listening to The Crane Wife (a tradition we continue, at least when first starting out, for each of our road trips). There’s some chance a bit of brainwashing/conditioning bled into those repeated hours of listening, but the careful craftsmanship of Meloy’s storytelling is something I had yet to experience prior to. I came to the genre later in life than most, I think, which accounts for some of my educational absence here, an absence I’ve since sought to remedy, but at the time, it translated into one of those fabled “Ah Ha!” moments, a moment I’ve clung to ever since.
Their latest album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World follows the typical Decemberists pendulum of maudlin and whimsical, this falling closer to the former in tone. Given Meloy’s penchant for the narrative, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the relationship pitfalls discussed were experienced things. Much of the arc feels strangely familiar at the moment given the places both my wife and I are in our lives, and there was a time I had difficulty listening to the first track released from their album, “Make Me Better”. Too, “Lake Song” makes parting ways for a time beautiful, curiously, it’s lyrics my favorite from the album, and possibly my favorite Decemberists song to date. One particular set which stands out each listen is: “Come to me now/And on this station wagon window/Set the ghost of your two footprints/That they might haunt me when you’re gone”. Every line in there from start to finish is perfectly crafted. And alternatively, “The Wrong Year” reminds me of my wife in a happier way, the story of a girl born out in the country and refusing to let anyone change who she’s determined to be. Makes me smile every time it comes on.
All the above comes with a but: it’s uneven. This is in part due to how good the front end of the album is, as it’s front-loaded with what I’d argue are some of their most lyrically powerful songs, but the change in both tone and style plays a part in this shortcoming as well. Songs like “Better Not Wake The Baby”, “Anti-Summersong”, and “Easy Come, Easy Go” almost feel like after-thoughts when they arrive, the longest of the three coming in shy of the two-and-a-half minute mark. And though I like them, “Carolina Low” which plays just before these has such a heaviness to it, the rapidity of what follows is jarring. When they’re played away from the album as part of a Shuffle, say, I think they’ll work just fine as they are absolutely Decemberists in nature. It’s the jump in emotion which blunts them for me. Now, having said that, the final songs bring the collection back together quite well, and perhaps after spending more time with it, I’ll find stronger unity. They do add some needed levity, admittedly, and the overall placement of them would be tough no matter where they chose. Having said, I find the album’s pacing to be a strength overall, counter to how that may seem given what I’ve just said, which I’ll get into a little more below.
If I had to place Terrible/Beautiful, it’s a mix of Crane Wife’s narrative, Her Majesty’s more lighthearted aspects, and The King Is Dead’s roots in Americana. There were fans who complained over The King Is Dead, finding the sound, among other things, too far a departure from what they’d grown to like or expect from the band. Terrible/Beautiful opens with “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, speaking directly to the those complaints both candidly and with some good-natured ribbing. I enjoy watching artists grow in how they choose to approach their craft, and I further enjoy being able to watch these changes while finding the core of what I like so much about a band. “The Singer Addresses His Audience” is a good explanation of that growth, making its use right from the start perfect. After, Her Majesty makes its appearance, “Calvary Captain” reminding me a fair bit of “Song For Myla Goldberg”. Those more autobiographical songs follow (“Make Me Better”, “Lake Song”), crowing much of the album’s middle before spilling toward The King Is Dead and it’s quicker, breezier feel. The last track, “A Beginning Song”, is an excellent capstone however, falling back onto the personal, a song keenly aware of relationship strengths and differences, and in them a reconciliation of those separate pieces. Life and marriage can create such a tumult, especially when we realize people are not stagnant things, our wants and our needs evolving as we allow new experiences to shape our dynamic outlooks. When those begin to split, two halves of a whole bending like a wishbone as they’re tugged toward different interests, we easily lose sight of what brought us together in the first place. I have a terrible tendency to grow mired in the Now without settling myself, and the line in the final song which says “Condescend to calm this riot in your mind/Find yourself in time” shouts to me in another of those “Ah Ha’s”. Just… being. I need to hear that, hear it and often, as it’s something I continue to lose sight of. I need to be more okay with letting go of Old Me. Even Old Us, as it pertains to my wife and I. For me, at least, evolution seems a scary thing, good only when we’re in sync with one another, and I’m coming to realize it needn’t be. “A Beginning Song” makes for a great ending as it lures me to just listen, stripping away all excess and just resting with emotions reminiscent of what it was like to fall in love with that person I did so long ago, and doing so again for a second (or third, or fourth) time.
This is an album I see a good deal of myself in.
Recommended. What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World reminds me why I love the Decemberists so much.