Wednesday was my Decemberists day, as the famous Portland band made a stop at Amoeba to sign their new album ‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World ‘which had comes out the day before on Capitol Records. I caught them, all sitting at a long table, greeting fans and dogs, but I didn’t stay long as I also wanted to catch them the same night at Sonos Studios. It was just a Q&A with Colin Meloy following by a listening party of the album, and by ‘just’ I meant that there was no performance alas… So I saw the Decemberists’ frontman twice the same evening, but I didn’t really hear the music, as I couldn’t stay for the listening party….
But I am listening to the album right now, streaming it on Spotify and it is a beautiful sound, clear and melancholic mixing countrish bright vocals with shinning guitar and emotional strings. The first song ‘The Singer Addresses His Audience’ with its soaring and powerful and very bombastic second part, sounds optimistic and hilarious at the same time. Colin explained it is actually the point of view of a boyband’s singer, and the fact that the relationship between the guy and the audience feels like an ownership (‘We’re aware that you cut your hair/In the style that our drummer wore/In the video’)… Optimistic and humoristic, like the rest of the record, despite its dramatic title, but as KCRW’s Anne Litt, who interviewed Colin Meloy, said, the beautiful comes in second, so we are safe.
‘What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World’ is the Decemberists ’first album in 4 years, and before anything else, Colin made us all sit on the floor as he was worrying people would not be able to see while he was comfortably sitting on a sofa. The day before (January 20th) was declared Decemberists day in Portland, and they performed in presence of the mayor, in front of a giant quilt inspired by the album cover, designed by 50 different artists. This is how big they are in their hometown.
The album was conceived very differently from the previous ones, first they waited 4 years before releasing it, and it was the first time they waited for the songs to come, taking a break after ‘The King Is Dead’. Plus, Meloy was working on a series of books, the ‘Wildwood’ series, the ‘saga of two seventh-graders who are drawn into a hidden, magical forest, illustrated by his wife, Carson Ellis’. ‘Writing the songs was a good way to procrastinate, to pass the time’, he said surprisingly, as you would never expect it would be easier to write songs than a kids’ book!
But they had a lot of fun to get back together, ‘the band is like a polygamist marriage like a Mormon thing’, he said jokingly, and it’s not as if they were aimless while Colin was writing books, as they are in a band on their own, ‘I feel like a dictator in the Decemberists, so I feel great about that!’ he added.
If concepts are a big part of their work, this one is not a concept album, and they had a big discussion about it with producer Tucker Martine (who also produced My Morning Jacket, R.E.M., Sufjan Stevens, Neko Case, Spoon). ‘What’s the concept this time?’ Instead they decided to let the songs flourish by themselves. ‘They work like a collection of short stories, they should feel they belong together’, he explained.
But especially, this album seems to be more personal than usual. ‘These are more first-person meditations, I was more inward looking,’ said Colin responding to Anne Litt’s impression that his domestic life was the background of the album. ‘I had finished the third book, and I was living in another world when writing it,’ he added insisting that the songs felt personal in contrast.
Writing songs come easy to Colin, there’s no doubt about this, not only he was writing these ones while writing this book series but the genesis of one of the songs of the album, ‘Carolina Low’, is so surprising. Colin was supposed to be on a radio show and he was asked to play a new song but he was told they were too long, and, as he couldn’t find a way to cut any of his songs, he said, ‘I should just write another song’ and he wrote ‘Carolina Low’,… on the spot?
The album also offers the happy, jaunty, racy and doo-woppy ‘Philomena’ which is also kind of dirty, and the much more serious ‘12-17-12’ which is the date President Obama addressed the nation following the Newtown school shootings.
A few people asked a few questions after the interview and I learned that Colin didn’t follow his father’s advice who had a mantra about only doing a creative pursuit as a hobby and having a real job,… and we can rejoice, otherwise he and his writer sister would have been attorneys. He also talked about his autistic son and his advocacy for neurodiversity, the idea that autism is not a disease that needs to be cured, and not a separate part of the personality of a person who are diagnosed as autistic. ‘We are told that autism takes your child away, it’s a scare tactic, powerful for fundraising, but autism is inseparable from my son’s identity and personality’, he explained, ‘To cure him would be to remove him, and neurodiversity is about accepting all neurotypes including non typical neurotypes.’ We weren’t talking about music and the Decemberists’ album anymore, but this was bringing a new light on a painful situation, a sensible and humane voice in this terrible but beautiful world.
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