Three years ago The Decemberists released What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, the band’s seventh full-length album which, like most releases from Portland’s premier prog-folk outfit, is clever and catchy and thoughtful. Stylistically, What a Terrible World hews closely to The Decemberists’ well-established folksy style but the album is no worse for being something of a retread (in fact, the haunting ‘Lake Song’ may be the single greatest installment in the band’s extensive archive).
Despite its simple construction, the most interesting song on What a Terrible World is undoubtedly ’12/17/12′ in which lyricist Colin Meloy reflects on, among other things, the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults.
Through his laconic lyrics, Meloy tries to reconcile the joy that he feels from the impending arrival of his second child with the immense grief that empathy for the Sandy Hook victims and their families demands. In confronting the inherent complexity and duality of simultaneously experiencing both intense joy and utter anguish Meloy poignantly states,
“Oh my God, what a world you have made here. What a terrible world, what a beautiful world.”
The cruelest reality of Meloy’s claim isn’t that both beauty and terror are bound into the very fabric of our world—which they are—it’s that Meloy’s appeal to a higher authority is merely a poetic device. The reality is that we have made this world, that there is no one to be held accountable for the state of things but ourselves and the institutions and authorities to which we have entrusted—or which have taken—power, institutions and authorities that consist of nothing more or less than people and their actions. Where there is beauty in that construct, the praise is ours. But where there is terror, we must shoulder the blame.
Earlier this month The Decemberists released I’ll Be Your Girl, their eighth full-length album which, unlike most releases from the Pacific Northwest’s preeminent literary folk-rockers, incorporates hearty doses of synth and programming. Last weekend, I spent an hour listening to I’ll Be Your Girl after which I realized that, though there are a few moments on the album that I enjoy, this is a record that I’m unlikely to revisit with any regularity. Over that same weekend, more than one million people marched in support of increased gun control research and legislation. As Emma Gonzalez—a survivor from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of our nation’s most recent mass school shooting—used her voice in the most powerful of ways, I found myself thinking of ’12/17/12′ and how, again and again, our leaders choose to avoid the pursuit of change and instead offer their own poetic device: thoughts and prayers.
If the murder of elementary school children, slain mercilessly in what should be an unquestionably safe space, couldn’t move those in power to action, then what will? In another three years, when The Decemberists may be releasing yet another album, will we once again be mourning the loss of more children? Maybe. Or maybe the heroic efforts of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas survivors and the #NeverAgain movement that they began will spur real change in a country that desperately needs it. Maybe the increased connectedness of our digitized world, the ascent of a generation raised in the throes of gun violence, our shifting political atmosphere and the incredible agency of these survivors will finally force those in power to reckon with concerns that they have so often tried to pivot away from, even as other survivors and communities have agitated for gun control reform.
Whether or not change does eventually come, it is unconscionable that recent American power structures have not made legitimate efforts to protect our nation’s children from gun violence until those children themselves have stood up and demanded it. This is a terrible failure of leadership and there is blame enough to go around. And yet, though tragic in its necessity, there is praise too: we shouldn’t have to ask high school kids to be so brave, to lead us like this, but there they are, bravely leading us all the same.
What a world we have made. What a terrible world, what a beautiful world.