“Decemberists and Newcastle” by Lee Vowell

I always start with a drink. Then I add another to it. Not a heavy drink. More like a beer. A good beer. A Newcastle Scotch Ale. Then I put my headphones on. This is how I pre-game.

The game tonight is the new Decemberists album, “What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World.” I should tell you, however, the Decemberists had me at hello. I am a fan. And I have been for a long time. It would take them trying to turn into Fleetwood Mac or a contemporary country band for me to dislike an album of theirs. Even then, I might be able to empathize with what they are attempting to do that I suffer through. This particular album has been birthing singles for a while now, so I already know what to expect from a third of the album before I listen to it in its entirety. I am excited. Not King Is Dead excited, but, you know…excited.


The first single I heard was a song called “Make You Better.” It’s a great tune. There exists a video of the song starring Ronald Ulysses Swanson from Parks and Recreation. (I know Ron’s name is actually Nick Offerman, and he’s awesome truly.) In the video Ron plays a German talk show host who mishears the word “Better” for “Butter,” and hilarity ensues. The song itself is classic Colin Meloy and company: acoustic based with great chord progressions and a melody you can sing along with. The lyrics, like most any Decemberists song, are wordy and imaginative. And I was thinking when I first heard the song it was great and many listens later it was still very nice. If this was the first single, I could only imagine what awaited me on the entire piece.

The second single, “Lake Song,” lessened my expectations a bit. I find Nick Drake’s music as pleasant sounding as everyone else, but I am not a rabid fan. “Lake Song” sounds like the Decemberists covering a Nick Drake tune. The flighty chorus seems almost cut and pasted from “Northern Sky. “ The song is good. But it’s not what I have come to expect from a band I love.

Oh, I know. The whole premise surrounding any negativity towards the group stems from the theory that they are too derivative from bands that influenced them. This is an oversimplified view of their music. All music comes from somewhere, obviously. The Decemberists music is a mixture of rock, Americana and folk. There are archetypes in those styles that make them relatable to anyone who enjoys those kinds of music. The Decemberists just use the best bits, and so they therefore sound like the good bits of other people’s music. They are not reinventing the wheel; they are creating good original songs.

The third and fourth singles, “The Wrong Year” and “A Beginning Song,” released very closely to each other. After listening to “The Wrong Year” I was a bit worried. The music, somber and repetitive, was still fine, if almost a little too laid back for its own good. The issue I had was that the lyrics were not nearly on par with other Meloy songs. They might be good for most other songwriters, but I expect more from Meloy. The chorus goes thusly:

And she wants you but you won’t do
And it won’t leave you alone
And the rain falls on the wrong year
And it won’t leave you alone
It won’t leave you alone

Meloy has probably thrown napkins of lyric scraps away better than that. This had me worried that the album itself would be uninspiring.

Thank goodness for “A Beginning Song,” probably the happiest Decemberists song ever penned. It’s a simple love song, and a damned good one. There is so much hopefulness at the end when the music builds and Meloy sings

And the light, bright light
And the light, bright light
Bright light, bright light

It’s all around me
It’s all around me
It’s all around me

that you might want to give your mate the song as a gift and say you are sorry for all the things you have ever done or ever will do to hurt their feelings. My advice, don’t hesitate. Just do it. And the song returned my faith that the new album would be a very good, if not great, one.

So, here I am, reaching for my next Newcastle anticipating. Headphones on. Pushing play. Game time.

The album opener is “The Singer Addresses His Audience.” And it is what the title says it is. I expected something more conceptual, but the song is really Meloy addressing us. Thanking us for listening to the band. It’s a good start.

So over the next hour I listen (and sometimes re-listen) to the album and have a couple more Newcastle. There are some songs that sound different from anything the band has done before. “Carolina Low” sounds like something Alison Krauss might do, for instance. Overall, though, the album is close to what I expect. I find it interesting that the four early releases are spread through the album. Somehow anchors the listening experience for the album. I am not sure which is better: 1) the album itself or 2) the fact the record company released the songs in the order they did.

Bottom line, the album does not disappoint. The instrumentation is fantastic as always, the songs are well-written and wordy, the melodies rise and fall and come together extremely well. But as I said before, I am biased. So, do me a favor. Go get this album.


As for the beer, I am biased there too. I really like Newcastle Brown Ale. The Newcastle Scotch Ale is new to the United States. New since November. It’s slightly higher ABV at 6.4%. Not overpowering, but crisp. Worth checking out. If you live in Tennessee, you will have to go to a liquor store and ask if they have it. If they don’t, see if they will order it. It’s worth it.

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