30 January 2015

The Decemberists - What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World

It has been far too long for me with The Decembrists - when I say that, I mean in terms of writing a blog about one of their albums.  I have only heard a couple of their previous releases (mostly I have listened to the stunning ‘Hazards of Love’) and they have always struck me as an incredibly focused act.  But somehow by stealth and at a very slow pace, they have become one of the biggest acts in America at the moment (it is not quite the same in the UK, but that will be changing).  On the few albums I have heard, they just keep adding to their craft and their ability to stir the emotions of their faithful following is second to none.  Now I heard this album was being released last year and recently I reviewed ‘Fortune’ by Black Prairie (cleverly linked here) which is a side project for (NAME ARTISTS) from this band.  That album was very good indeed and has made me wonder how the Decembrists are fairing these days – time to find out.
Starting is the acoustic opening “The Singer Addresses His Audience”, discussing the change in the band from the beginning and the change to the audience as well.  It is a lovely reminder that the band is human as well (something that we all forget at times – I have been guilty of this in the past).  It just builds very gradually and by the time it comes to the crashing ending which has a spectacular solo as well.  It is not as serious and dark as some of their earlier work, it just feels as if the band is opening up and it feels like the start of something special.  “Cavalry Captain” comes in like a blazing star, full of bright horns and joyful guitars, mixed with a strong sense of purpose and identity.  It is strangely familiar already and feels like it has a timeless quality about it already.  It is a strong opening duo to start this album, “Philomena” does the classic step for an album; after two stunning opening tracks it pulls it back slightly, you do not want to put all your massive tracks on straight away (see Prong’s ‘Cleansing’ for details on how to do that).  This doo-woop inspired love song down memory lane is another lovely number, taking its time and slowly sinking its subtle hooks into your soul.  If you are not smiling after this opening, you might be dead.  Track four is called “Make You Better” and it seems as if they have slowly turning into Deacon Blue, not that this is a bad thing; they just seem to have perfected their song writing even more than it was beforehand; they were always a fantastic band before hand, this just takes a giant leap to another level.  It feels like summer is here and the love songs are flowing from the band and “Make You Better” is one of the best I have heard for an awfully long time.  This is followed by “Lake Song”, a tale of a relationship in strain and flux is a subtle number that once again showcases the depth on offer from this band.  The first five numbers on this album are probably everything that The Waterboys were aiming for on their latest effort (and failed to achieve).

“Till The Water Is All Gone” is a eerie number, it feels as if there is a menace awaiting to erupt from beneath the beautiful acoustic guitar playing, organs and gospel choir which are the main features of the song.  Describing a conflict of people/ethics (depending on how you read the number), this song is another slice of the Americana experience which is done with the utmost ease.  “The Wrong Year” is the first song which does not meet the standards of the earlier numbers on this album; I love the tune itself, as a fan of this type of music it is very easy on the ears.  But it is not quite as good as the first six songs.  With that said to get to track seven without filler on a fourteen track album is still really good in my books.  “Carolina Low” is one of the darkest tracks on the album, another acoustic number that sounds sinister and like a sister track to “Till The Water Is All Gone”, they seem to do this a lot in their records as they return to themes which were touched upon earlier on in the album – see ‘The Hazards Of Love’ for their pinnacle in this type of music.  It is great to hear this sort of focus in an album, and this song with its tale of love and youth is a strong number.  “Better Not Wake the Baby” is a quick two minute long jig that sounds like it could be sung to keep spirits up whilst sailing ships, hoisting sails and preparing for war.  It is over far too soon for me, but I still find it brilliant.  Tenth track “Anti-summersong” is quite the opposite of what the title would suggest, it sounds like it should be a summer song, granted it is a disturbing message about a town failing and the singer trying to get out of the place; but the music just screams that it is for summer – obviously the intent and it is actually a funny song as well, you have to love the dark and twisted side of the band on display here.

“Easy Come, Easy Go” sounds like a calypso done with a folk/surfer twist – the number drifts along as if it is being played on a summer eve and has a carefree filling.  But the tale of deception and death is in dark contrast to the music that is playing.  It is a beautiful fractured mirror to the darker sides of the human experience.  “Mistral” is the twelfth song on offer here, a more folk experience on offer, but still with a clear ear for the rock element of the band.  It reminds me of early Waterboys and keeps that brilliant work which has been the main feature of this album, the honky tonk piano solo with harmonica is really impressive on this number; it was very close to being the song of the album, it is just beautiful.  The penultimate track is “12-17-12” which takes its title from a speech made by President Barack Obama and the effects that it had on the singer, mixed in with other words about his life that was happening at that time.  This is the most straight forward folk song, it has a slight Dylan feel over the number and whilst I am not a Bob Dylan fan I can certainly see why this number will be popular.  The final track is called “A Beginning Song”; I have a feeling this was by design to be cheeky, but you can forgive the band at this point.  It is even more forgivable when they sound as good as they sound as confident and assured as they do on this record.  It is a stirring call to arms, building slowly and surely towards a euphoric ending.

The main feeling I get from this album is a sense of freedom; it feels as if the band did not consider anyone outside of the room whilst they were recording this record; they took their songs which they have confidence in and unveiled them to the world.  It is strange to think of them being as big as they are, not because they do not deserve the acclaim or applause which is heading their way; it is because they are still so intimate and yet they could fill anywhere with a acute mixture of sorrow and joy for their fans to revel in.  For a folk band, that is something really hard to achieve, also the fact that apart from one track there is no dead weight.  It is easy to see why they are now a really big deal and I hope this brings them nore glory, as it is a strong album.  This album is already an early contender for my own personal album of the year, the gauntlet has been dropped – let’s see who has the fortitude to pick it up.

9 out of ten - This is almost perfect, almost......

Top track – Make You Better

You can purchase the album from Amazon here

You can visit the Decemberists website here

You can listen to the album on Spotify here

If Deezer is your streaming platform of choice, here is a link for you

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