The first great album of 2015
Let’s get this out of the way right up front: Even if you haven’t heard about their hometown naming next Friday “The Decemberists Day,” with an official proclamation to be presented by Portland Mayor Kyle MacLachlan.... er, Charlie Hales... at that craft-beer-and-Chemex-brewing, bearded-hipsters Mecca, or you didn’t catch bandleader Colin Meloy announcing this new release by busking on the streets of Brooklyn, he and his co-conspirators give the skeptical plenty of reasons to scoff.
Start with the cumbersome title of their long-awaited seventh album What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, and move on to capital-“r” Romantic lyrics that once again are rife with characters such as the gown-wearing Philomena (who prompts the unusually bawdy confession from our former English and Theater-major bandleader: “All I ever wanted in the world was just to live to see a naked girl/But I found I’ve quickly bored, I wanted more, I wanted more!”) and the Cavalry Captain, a possible veteran of Tennyson’s infamous Light Brigade, who “is the remedy to your heart.”
Then, too, you must wrestle with the usual bounty of musical filigree, from horn sections to doo-wop choirs, all decorating a Celtic/hill-country lilt to many of the songs that Meloy always credits to the cooler end of ’70s British folk-rock crossed with the Smiths, but which resonates just as much of prime Jethro Tull (think Songs from the Wood) and ELP in its “Lucky Man” mode.
None of that matters. As a geeky history buff with special passions for the Napoleonic and Victorian eras, as an English professor, and as an unabashed progressive-rock fan, I’ve always lapped it all up. But even if I put on my cynical punk-rock glasses, I just can’t condemn Meloy and his mates for their excesses, not when these are accompanied by such a healthy sense of humor, whether one thinks of the band performing with the Grant Park Symphony at the Bean back in 2007 and trotting out a papier-mâché Moby Dick as a stage prop, or revels in the silly video for “Make You Better” or the lyrics to the new tune “The Singer Addresses His Audience” (which contains the lines, “So when your bridal processional is a televised confessional/To the benefits of Axe shampoo… We did it all for you”).
“We had to change,” Meloy also declares in the latter tune, but the changes on the follow-up to The King Is Dead (2011) are minimal indeed: There’s the most oblique of political references in “12-17-12,” the date of the Newton massacre; the unusually straightforward nature of the ballad “Make You Better” (which features Chicago darling Kelly Hogan on backing vocals), and an attempt to write a timeless folk/blues classic a la “You Don’t Miss Your Water” in “Till The Water Is Long Gone.” But the overall impression is of familiar Decemberists terrain indeed. And that’s fine, too, at least when every one of these 14 tracks boasts a melody as strong as any the band ever has given us.
That, ultimately, is why we love this group, and why we keep coming back. And your disdain of pretension and allergy to the thesaurus be damned.
The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (Columbia)
Rating on the four-star scale: 4 stars.