The Decemberists Offer Most Accessible Album Yet

5 Mar

I came late to the Decemberists. Formed in 2000, the Portland-based indie folk-rock band with a bent toward bookish storytelling and the use of obtuse mythology and similar material in its songs has released seven full-length albums and a number of other EPs or singles.

On the early albums, bandleader and singer-songwriter, Colin Meloy, often based his compositions on obscure literary references or historical events. In creating albums aimed at a discerning audience — and apparently free from any of the commonly accepted restrictions on popular music — the Decemberists built a cult-like following.

But on its most recent two albums that I’ve had the pleasure to review — The King Is Dead and the new What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World — the Decemberists’ music has never been more approachable. That doesn’t mean that the band has abandoned its original approach and capitulated to conventional pop music formulas. Rather, it’s more a product of the Decemberists’ continuing maturity and Meloy’s heightened songwriting prowess.

For example, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World opens with “The Singer Addresses his Audience,” an ode to the band’s loyal fans over the years. Meloy coyly sings, “We know, we know we belong to ya/We know you built your life around us/Would we change?/We had to change some.” This helps prepare the fans for the much more accessible set list to come.

“Make You Better” is as radio-friendly as any song the band has ever done. It includes both jangly and sharp angular guitars, piano, soaring harmonies, and a solid hook. Another standout is the following track, “Lake Song,” a reflective look back at Meloy’s youth. The bouncy beat with drums and bass, together with deftly played piano and strings, is comfortable on the ears — while Meloy frankly discusses being “17 and terminally fey,” and then confesses to his long-lost crush, “To tell the truth, I never had a clue.”

“The Wrong Year” features a skipping rhythm and lithe guitar work in a tune with an immediately familiar melody and rich harmonies. In a nod to its long-held musical pedigree, the band also makes good use of the accordion in the tune.

“Philomena” is a silly ditty that testifies to the band’s willingness to continue to push boundaries. It’s a playful doo-wop number with risqué, although vague, sexual references.

The closing song is an anthem with chamber-pop elements that’s naturally called, “A Beginning Song.” This is perhaps a hint that the band has much more music to share with its fans, new and old. If that’s the case — and if its future albums are anything like What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World — we’re all very fortunate indeed.

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