During the video for “Make You Better,” Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy sits down with mustachioed actor and Internet hero Nick Offerman to converse as awkwardly as possible about whether the track is called “Make You Better” or “Make You Butter.” Armed with a turtleneck and a deliberately cringeworthy accent – German? Russian? Swedish? Some unfunny combination of all three? – Offerman serves up the kitsch in spades. Meloy can hardly stop himself from looking straight into the camera to wink through his thick-rimmed glasses and whisper, “Aren’t we witty?”
Consider it foreshadowing. What a Beautiful World, What a Terrible World finds the Decemberists so intent on being more witty and bookish and kitschy than you that they hardly have a spare moment to worry about the music. Take the final track, titled “A Beginning Song.” (All that’s missing is the knowing smirk.) Or “Mistral,” a term the super smart Decemberists already knew but one that you had to Google. (It’s a Mediterranean wind, you uncultured swine.) Or “Anti-Summersong” about – take a wild guess – how fed up the singer is with songs about summer. Ugh.
Meloy is hellbent on being a modern day balladeer, spinning narratives galore about Calvary captains and a “come-on queen” found dead in her bathroom after several weeks. Rarely do we hear contemporary albums so full of such detailed storytelling, so Meloy’s unique approach deserves credit. His lyrics wax (“Better Not Wake The Baby”) and wane (“Lake Song”) in cleverness but never fail to intrigue. Well, at least until things get weird on “Philomena,” a happy-in-a-creepy-way track about third base whose title character shares a rather distinct name with one of the most famous rape victims in Western literature. Okay then.
There are glimmers of good: “The Singer Addresses His Audience” is an honest and intimate examination of bands and their devoted followers; “Carolina Low” finds its stride in the folk rock desolation first mastered by Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac on “Gold Dust Woman.” Amidst the twee flicker glimpses of maturity, indications that the wheel does in fact break the butterfly. The occasional lyrical seriousness helps dilute the adorable ooh-ahs and nauseatingly perky piano blanketing the album. How disappointing then that what maturity seeps through is dampened by its own infrequency. Seven albums into their career, the Decemberists are still refusing to grow up. It’s not a good look.
For giving big, significant words like “beautiful” and “terrible” prime placement in the album title, it’s surprising that the band fashions their album to fit much smaller and safer ones: “cute,” “happy,” “fun.” It’s hard to take the serious songs seriously when you take in their cutesy surroundings; the cutesy songs are so grating you don’t want to hear them take them in a second time. Even worse is the intellectual snobbishness hardly concealed under every sunny strum and lyric, including “Infer this aching jib” and “All sibylline, reclining in your pew.” The Decemberists are going to insult your intelligence, and they are going to shower you in rainbows and smiles and bubbles while they do it. Bring an umbrella along with your thesaurus.