The Decemberists are a fascinating band. On the face of it, a fairly normal American indie-rock band with a touch of folk to them. Catchy, melodic, decent. But delve deeper into the five-piece’s six album-strong back catalogue and you’ll find a band with a depth and breadth few ever come close to. From eight-minute folklore operas about feuding mariners and three-part representations of an old Japanese story to a rich variety of musical styles and tones, they are full of off-the-cuff and out-of-the-ordinary surprises.
Their seventh album, ‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World’, is a microcosm of that sentiment. On first listen it sounds dry. It sounds like the band have lost their charm, their idiosyncrasies and their ability to take the usual and twist into their own. They’ve been so generous with unique and interesting music over the last fifteen years, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if the well had run dry.
But give the new record time and the subtleties that make The Decemberists such a valuable band start to appear. There’s no doubt the album lacks some of the invention and creativity the band used to boast – though there are hints of it – but their sound has been moving in a much more measured and settled way for several albums now. And it’s not to say this album doesn’t have its own qualities.
Singer Colin Meloy’s voice is a thing of beauty. It has a grate to it that gives it an addictive edge, but it’s warm and soothing too. His ability to write hooks is still as strong as ever, and the narrative prowess he has always made absolute use of is ever stirring. And even when The Decemberists are not at their most inventive, there is a reassuring energy to their music – from the immediately catchy ‘Cavalry Captain’ to the engaging ‘Mistral’. Plus, it is safe to assume, the longer you spend with this record and the deeper into it you sink, the greater it will grow.