Album Review: The Decemberists Loosen Up on 'What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World'

On "The Singer Addresses His Audience," the opening track to The Decemberists' seventh LP What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, when singer-guitarist Colin Meloy sings, "We had to change some," it makes sense. The Portland, Ore., quintet has previously made a point of adhering to particular styles for entire albums -- prog-rock on 2009's The Hazards of Love, Americana on 2011's The King Is Dead -- but the band's latest feels unencumbered by showy pantomime, finally loosening up and skewing more organic rock.

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The act, which became indie-rock royalty with melodramatic study-songs and live shows full of nerdy historical references, undoes those three-button vests the members and their theater-kid fans have been cheekily stereotyped to wear. They still draw from folk traditions, but they do it in freehand fashion, with varied results. "Mistral" features organ and Staples Singers-inspired "oohs"; "Anti-Summersong" less successfully marries macabre lyrics and boot-stomping rhythms.

Despite its history, when the band abandons theatrical excess it sounds most at home. The stripped-down songs on Terrible World -- guitar-driven variations on God-fearing gospel ("Carolina Low") and Laurel Canyon country ("Lake Song") -- are its best. After years of extravagance, dressing down turns out to be The Decemberists' strong suit.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of Billboard.

The Decemberists - What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World Album Review
3.5 STARS

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