The Decemberists belatedly embraced their indie pop sensibilities (or at very least their fondness for R.E.M.) on 2011's The King Is Dead, and were rewarded with a number one chart placing and the group's greatest commercial success to date, leading some to wonder if Colin Meloy and his bandmates were going to go for more hooks or return to the more ornate sound of their earlier work now that they had a large audience waiting for the follow-up. As it turns out, 2014's What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World finds the Decemberists managing to have it both ways; if anything, many of these songs are brighter and hookier than those on The King Is Dead, but if this is pop, it's pop that's keenly intelligent, melodically adventurous, obsessively literate, and perfectly willing to explore sadness and disappointment rather than just the upbeat moods that are expected to accompany catchy melodies. The melodies on "Lake Song" and "Till the Water Is All Long Gone" may be more streamlined than you'd hear on Picaresque or The Crane Wife, but the arrangements are richly detailed, playing on the dynamics of Chris Funk's guitars, Jenny Conlee's keyboards and accordions, and John Moen's percussion, and the group takes much pleasure in the dour beauty of its melodies. The band also embraces its upbeat side on this album with numbers like "The Wrong Year" and "Philomena" (the latter pondering teenage lust as only the Decemberists can), and the opening track, "The Singer Addresses His Audience," is a witty but cutting meditation on the notion of fame, its impact on the culture, and where the Decemberists fit into the puzzle in the wake of hit records and appearances on Parks & Recreation. There's still more than enough folk in the Decemberists' approach to make them stand apart from their peers on the upper reaches of the pop charts, and the intuitive smarts of their stylistic vision are still front and center, but What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is an album where the creative sprawl is more a matter of how this divergent selection of melodies and moods interacts, rather than how many elements can be folded into one song; this is very clearly the Decemberists, but with a new kind of focus in their songs and arrangements that makes it clear this album's sound is a result of creative evolution, not an offering to their newer, larger audience, and it's a sweet and sour wonder that rewards repeated listening.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming