Not a Book: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

Today on Sarah Likes Books, I am going to take the unprecedented risk of revealing that I do, in fact, like some things that aren’t books. By request, I am reviewing the new album by terminally fey and ridiculous band the Decemberists. Patrick Ness at least once described them as THE GREATEST BAND IN THE WORLD. Patrick Ness has also described Stephen King’s The Stand as a teenager’s War and Peace, so I figure we have similar tastes.

Colin Meloy is the chief songwriter and frontman of the Decemberists, and he has also written some books, so there’s another tenuous connection to this blog’s subject.

Important to know going into this: I don’t know how to write about music.



The last Decemberists release, 2011’s The King is Dead, was a warm slice of Americana. It has been variously described as a REM tribute album, an attempt at writing some pretty songs, and a suggestion of sunlight in the middle of winter. I like it now, but I didn’t really get it at first. It took The Hazards of Love (2009), their divisive prog-rock folk opera album, to make me see the band’s appeal. Circle back to The Crane Wife (2006), and I had found my favourite band. (Fight with me about their best album in the comments. I am ready.)

I think a lot of people were disappointed by The King is Dead, seeing the more radio friendly tunes as the band “selling out”. Happily, the new album sees the band capitalising on the development in their sound whilst harking back to the weirdness of classic early Decemberists. It sounds and feels a lot more like a Decemberists album than The King is Dead did. It also sounds kind of like a Tarkio album at times, which is no bad thing.

The first song is essentially the Decemberists’ version of ‘We’re So Starving’. Opening albums with songs about how you’ve changed your musical direction is so 2008, guys. I love Pretty. Odd. though. It features a choir of a dozen, which is a sign of what is to come throughout the album, and a harmonised line about Axe shampoo, which thankfully isn’t.

‘Cavalry Captain’ is so jaunty it made me sit up in bed and have a little jive. The brass brings me great joy, but then if I learnt anything from seeing the Antlers it was that there should be more brass in everything. The lyrics are typical Meloy-style historical romance. I mean, it’s called Cavalry Captain. It name checks the light brigade. I’m just saying.

‘Philomena’ is the most incredibly cute song about oral sex I have ever heard. It is melodically sweet, layered with 60s girl group harmonies, and 100% about cunnilingus.

‘Make You Better’ is shimmery and pretty and has a weird video featuring Ron Swanson. “BUT WE’RE NOT SO STARRY EYED ANY MORE!” Its positioning in the album means it kicks off a streak of loveliness: ‘Lake Song’ is a gorgeous afternoon of a song that makes me want to go off and have a little cry. It’s the most bittersweet YA novel I’ll never read. Sprawling, sultry, spooky, ‘Till the Water’s All Long Gone’ comes out of nowhere, seduces you, and then leaves you in the arms of ‘The Wrong Year’, which is adorable and jangly and makes me feel happy.

Next up is ‘Carolina Low’, which I keep mixing up with ‘California One’ because I don’t have a clue about US geography. It sounds like it could’ve been on Long Live the King. It’s sinister and great, and all songs should feature either a Hammond organ or backing vocals that sound like a Hammond organ. Yes, as well as the brass section rule.

I’ve not got much into the second half yet; it’s a little abrasive for the most part, which is intentional for ‘Better Not Wake the Baby’. ‘Anti-Summersong’ sounds like a barn dance and is extremely silly, while ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ is perhaps a little too true to its title in that I in no way remember how it goes. It is nice to see the Decemberists still writing songs about scamps called names like Limber Jack, though.

‘Mistral’ is another pretty song with a singalong chorus. ’12/17/12′ was prompted by President Obama’s address after the Newtown school shootings and is appropriately stripped back, with simple accompaniment to the vocal duet. I’m not a huge fan of the harmonica, but it’s a sweet, sad song.

Album closer ‘A Beginning Song’ feels like a warm squeeze on the shoulder. I listen to this song and I feel like the Decemberists are my parents and they genuinely want the best for me. It’s so full of hope and love. I love you back, Decemberists! I LOVE YOU BACK. I don’t even know what it sounds like because it gives me too many FEELINGS.

In conclusion: this album is destined to sit somewhere in the middle of my ranking of Decemberists albums, but it is plenty rich and I’m fairly sure it’ll reward repeated listens. (At least until Marika Hackman’s album comes out next month.) THE GREATEST BAND IN THE WORLD.


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