Having taken their thematically complex take on folk and country music to the top of the US charts with The King Is Dead, The Decemberists were probably ripe for a change. Given their make up, a musical volt face was always unlikely so instead their seventh album sees the Oregan band loosen up a little, worry less about the big idea and just string a series of songs together. They’ve even developed a sense of humour if the marvellous opener ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’, a witheringly witty look at modern celebrity, is anything to go by. They prove they can do pop too, with second track ‘Calvary Captain’ exploding into string and brass assisted life. ‘Philomenia’ tries to repeat the trick but falls the wrong side of twee, ending up like something out of a Christopher Guest movie. Momentum is regained with ‘Make You Better’ however, a stomping rock tune almost reminiscent of classic Fleetwood Mac.
Having started strongly though, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World starts to flounder. The record works when the band either strip it back or pile it on, the frequent moments when they just play it down the middle fail to make an impression – lacking the sort of drama and grit that they’ve exhibited in the past – and resulting in a number of characterless acoustic songs about love and the human condition.
Thankfully there is spirit to be found. ‘Better Not Wake The Baby’ is a feisty sea shanty style number, while ‘Mistral’ comes complete with Muscle Shoals style backing vocals. At the other end of the spectrum, ’12/17/12′ is stark, subtle response to the Sandy Hook school shooting. It leads to the epic ‘A Beginning Song’, ensuring that the record leaves us on a the same high with which it started. It’s just what happens in the middle that’s the problem.