“But we’re not so starry-eyed anymore,” Colin Meloy croons on “Make You Better,” the surprisingly radio-ready lead single off The Decemberists’ seventh studio album, What a Beautiful World, What A Terrible World. Indeed, while the group broke through with its heady, academic – and, yes, geeky – brand of historically-literate prog-folk, this latest record finds the Portland, Ore. quintet embracing a simpler, gentler format.
It’s hardly a surprising artistic shift. After finding success in the mid-Aughts with rock-operas about an old Japanese folktale and a woman’s unlikely romance with a forest-dwelling shape-shifter (2006’s The Crane Wife and 2009’s The Hazards of Love, respectively), Meloy conscientiously stripped down the group’s progressive approach and high-minded concepts. The result was the howling, rustic Americana of 2011’s The King Is Dead.
But where King was stark, driven by loud beats and hard-edged alt-country textures, Beautiful World is lush and serene, heavy on ballads and slightly more pop-friendly than past efforts. “Cavalry Captain” features a big, synthy hook around its upbeat chorus, “Philomena” is a tight, classic rock ‘n’ roll number, complete with soulful ooh’s and ah’s, and the aforementioned “Make You Better” is an aptly crafted pop ballad, complete with piano and electric guitar solo.
Later in the record, The Decemberists find themselves in folksier territory. On “Better Not Wake the Baby,” the group revives the weird, quirky high seas folk of early tunes like “A Cautionary Song,” and on “Anti-Summersong,” Meloy leads a boisterous, barefoot-stomping bluegrass romp.
Other moments find the group at their most beautiful and most tragic. “The Wrong Year” begins somewhere around Jane’s Addiction’s “Jane Says” but ultimately surpasses it in utter sadness, thanks to their on-point folky dynamics and Meloy’s heartbreaking refrain, “and it won’t leave you alone.”
While not as complex or interesting as previous releases, Beautiful World mostly lives up to the melancholy beauty its title seems to promise – albeit without pushing their artistic boundaries as much as some fans might wish. You could call it a step back from the band’s highbrow legacy, and perhaps it is, but as Meloy disclaims in the appropriately titled album opened, “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” “We know you grew your arms around us / and the hopes we wouldn’t change / but we had to change some.”
Still, it’s hard not to wish they had changed into something a little more rustic or intricate.