As daunting and genre-bending and melodramatic as The Decemberists’ fifth full-length The Hazards of Love is, none of it should surprise anyone.
Colin Meloy and company have been playing the pop-music-as-theatre card since “My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist” from their 2001 debut EP 5 Songs. Even the most singular tracks in the band’s impressively consistent catalog contain a verse or two of theatrical mush (i.e. “Red Right Ankle’s” gypsy uncle). And as The Decemberists have grown from Portland scene stars to Death Cab for Cutie cohorts to Kill Rock Stars headliners to Obama rally openers, their penchant for panache has grown with them.
Following a lengthy tour in support of 2006’s loose concept album The Crane Wife, Meloy set to work writing a musical. The story — whose title was lifted from an obscure 1966 Anne Briggs EP — would revolve around William, a shape-shifting man-beast (naturally), his perfectly human lover Margaret and a couple of seedy characters hell-bent on tearing them apart. After a while, Meloy abandoned the musical concept and appropriated his stage piece for a more familiar venue.
The resulting album (read: rock opera) is a 58-minute waltz through alt-country, folk, prog and metal that should be accessible to just about everyone, despite a complete lack of standout singles. Exhuming one song from the 17 that comprise the album creates confusion both lyrically and musically. That’s why early release tracks “The Rake’s Song” and “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)” didn’t work. Bereft of sonic and narrative context, the songs came off half-hearted and unfocused. But within the confines of the album, they are two of the most important parts of the story.
In building his cast of characters, Meloy recruited a pair of female leads from opposite ends of the vocal spectrum. Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark lends her spritely lilt to give Margaret a naive, vulnerable personality. The story’s heroine treads lightly on each syllable, sounding just as you’d expect a crushing teen in the presence of his or her beloved. But it’s Shara Worden — of My Brightest Diamond — who steals the show. Her Queen is shrill and ominous. When she sings, “Consider this your debt repaid” on climactic album centerpiece “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid”, you can picture a menacing grin curling her lip — folk rock has never been this imaginatively engaging.
Meloy himself performs admirably as narrator, William and villainous Rake, although you’ll wish he would have used Jim James’ cameo to fill one of these parts rather than provide barely noticeable backing vocals on prelude and interlude tracks.
The album’s folkier moments are classic Decemberists behind Chris Funk’s pedal steel, Jenny Conlee’s organ and Nate Query’s upright bass. The stoner metal sections work surprisingly well, adding yet another hyphenated descriptor to the band’s laundry list of reference points. And even though almost half the tracks on the album are reprises of previous songs, The Hazards of Love never loses its excitement or its Tucker Martine-produced sheen.
But the real treat of The Hazards of Love isn’t revealed until you sit down, open the liner notes and read along with the album. Meloy’s literary chops are especially sharp this time around, and he weaves the tale of Margaret and William as though it were playing out onstage. If you liked Picaresque’s penultimate seafaring story “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, The Hazards of Love will maintain endless replay value. You’ll feel Margaret’s exilic retreat to the Taiga in “A Bower Scene”. You’ll swoon to the sweet pillow talk of “Isn’t It A Lovely Night?” Your ire will rise at “The Rake’s Song”. Your heart will sink as “Annan Water” foreshadows William’s fate. And when Meloy’s narrator closes the album with, “And when the waves came crashing down, he closed his eyes and softly kissed her,” you might just shed a tear.
In the end, Meloy and his Decemberists accomplished exactly what they originally set out to do. They just didn’t need a stage to do it. No surprise, right? (Capitol, 2009)
By Blake Jackson