If any paradigm were to most accurately sum up existence on this blue marble, it would describe the dichotomy of good and bad. In plain English, we would marvel at What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World it is, which happens to be the title of The Decemberists' latest album. And it's one of their best, if less than cohesive, assemblies.
Here the Portland, Oregon, folk rockers find themselves more melancholy than usual and slightly less narrative-driven, but their stripped-down, introspective approach still has a way of capturing the imagination. The wordy title, echoed in the song "12-17-12," refers to the date of the Sandy Hook massacre. Colin Meloy, the band's frontman and principal songwriter, wrote the song in response to President Barack Obama's speech that day.
While truly a horrific day, in some parts of the globe (Syria and Yemen come to mind) child culling is a regular occurrence. But in presenting scenes like "Lake Song" (with it's chilling Nick Drake vibes) or the pop-centric "Make You Better" Meloy also focuses on the inherent beauty of this strange sphere we inhabit. We called up Chris Funk, The Decemberists' multi-instrumentalist (responsible for everything from mandolin to banjo to bouzouki) and asked him about some of the latest album's themes and how he gets through his day-to-day.
"It can go two ways: some bands identify as overtly political and that's their message. I don't think that's who we are as people," Funk says. "I think politics can get really old quickly. But I think we have an obligation to do something as musicians. If we have success in it, we have the stage a little bit. Why not? Why don't we try to change things for the better?"
Understandably, politics has been a touchy subject for a band who writes about avian brides and depressed bureaucrats. So, while the Decemberists might have performed at a certain Democratic presidential candidate party in Portland in 2008, maybe you shouldn't count that as an endorsement.
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"We struggled [with politics] for a long time. We said we weren't going to do that, talk about politics, then Colin wrote '16 Military Wives' [a song critical of the Bush Administration] and felt like that was a very political song, that kinda opened the door," Funk continues. "We were asked to do an event with Barack Obama, which was sticking your neck out there and saying you identify with a political movement or organization. Which was the beginning of that for us, as kind of simple that sounds now."
Funk says he doesn't really have an answer for how to cope with international misgivings. "It's part of the human condition. It's what you struggle with every day," Funk says. "Not every day hopefully. Listen to music sometimes, a therapist, alcohol, I really have no idea what people do to get through."
But what about all that beauty? That's where songs like "Easy Come, Easy Go" and "Calvary Captain" come in. But this album will not exactly transport you to a time before cell phones when dirigibles and zeppelins filled the air. Perhaps those days of vengeful sailors and engine drivers are behind the band. On "Philomena," Meloy sings it best: "All I ever wanted in the world was just to live to see a naked girl / But I found I've quickly bored, I wanted more, I wanted more"
Even more so than 2011's The King Is Dead, WATW,WABW is decidedly focused on present times and is meant to help you cope with the modern world more than escape from it.
Troy Farah is on Twitter.
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