Today, The Decemberists officially release their fifth studio album, entitled The Hazards Of Love. An idea that started as a single song inspired by an obscure British Folk EP from 1966 mutated first into a possible Michael Mayer musical, and then finally the most epic concept album since The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust.*
The album is seventeen tracks in all, but few are entirely self-contained, as many songs weave in and out of one another. After a brief prelude, it opens with the first of four parts of the title track, sung by chief Decemberist Colin Meloy playing the part of William, a shape-shifting forest dweller in love with the story’s main character, Margaret. This is followed up by A Bower Scene, in which power chords (that’s right, on a Decemberists record) steadily gallop towards a noisy stomp riff.
This leads into the introduction of Margaret, voiced by Becky Stark of the band Lavender Diamond. Won’t Want For Love (Margaret In The Taiga) features Becky’s elegantly anachronistic vocals over a walking blues riff and a disciplined 4/4 backing beat. The seemingly odd combination works extremely well actually, and the song is one of several extraordinarily good cuts among a thoroughly extraordinary album.
The second installment of the album’s segmented title track- subtitled Wager All– brings a new energy to the titular refrain and moves the fantastic story along, set in a taiga on an unascertainable planet, in an unascertainable time. We are then led through an interlude entitled The Queen’s Approach, and then, in Isn’t It A Lovely Night, shown a scene where Margaret and William are meeting in the forest. Margaret is pregnant. The forest queen is jealous, and she is on her way.
In The Wanting Comes In Waves / Repaid, William addresses the Queen- his mother, if I’m following- begging her not to interfere. But the antagonist insists, powerfully voiced by Shara Worden of the band My Brightest Diamond. The humble plinking around on (…what is that, a clavichord? Harpsichord?) gives way to a swaggering, squealing electric guitar- fittingly the cockiest riff of the album, and a surprisingly bold digression for The Decemberists- especially in the album heralded as a folk opera. Colin brings a little Detroit into Portland on this one, and it’s another standout cut.
Lead single The Rake’s Song comes after another interlude, and while I loved the song at first listen, it’s even better in context. The Rake is the life of the party, and his song is raucous, but the lyrics admit his despicable compulsions:
The henchman’s song sets up his Abduction Of Margaret, which revisits the power chords and stomp riff of A Bower Scene, and taking us back to the Queen with The Queen’s Rebuke / The Crossing– which revisits the electric rock n’ roll of Repaid, blowing it up, and taking it further. This is new territory for The Decemberists. A genuine growth, a new edge, and a new reason to get on the bandwagon. I discovered their “breakthrough” album The Crane Wife just a little too late, and now eagerly await their upcoming tour, where they will be performing The Hazards Of Love in its entirety from what I hear.
Through Annan Water and Margaret In Captivity, William travels to rescue Margaret if I’m hearing right, and the third installment of the title track, sung by a children’s choir, brings revenge and rescue, while the fourth and final installment, Hazards Of Love IV (The Drowned) journal the sad end of the tale, where we find William and Margaret afloat on a sinking ship. Doomed, they take solace; They have each other, and they will finally have peace:
O let’s be married here today, these rushing waves to bear our witness.
And we will lie like river stones rolling only where it takes us.
But I pulled you and I called you here,
And I caught you and I brought you here.
These hazards of love, never more will trouble us.
God… this review reads like a high school book report, doesn’t it? I got my copy a week ago, and according to iTunes, I’ve listened to it twenty times. I didn’t start to understand the story until at least the tenth or eleventh run through, so part of me just wanted to sort it out on paper. But what you need to know is that this is the best album of 2009 so far. It’s a masterpiece, and The Decemberists have outdone their amazing Crane Wife against all odds. It’s a grand, inspired vision. It’s a concept album, but not the usual sort, where the story or cliché being milked for an album’s worth of lyrics is more of an excuse than a constitutive instrument. Go. Get it now.
The Hazards Of Love
March 17, 2009
2. Hazards Of Love I (The Prettiest Whistles…)
3. A Bower Scene
4. Won’t Want For Love (Margaret In The Taiga)
5. Hazards Of Love II (Wager All)
6. The Queen’s Approach
7. Isn’t It A Lovely Night?
8. The Wanting Comes In Waves / Repaid
9. An Interlude
10. The Rake’s Song
11. The Abduction Of Margaret
12. The Queen’s Rebuke / The Crossing
13. Annan Water
14. Margaret In Captivity
15. Hazards Of Love III (Revenge!)
16. The Wanting Comes In Waves (Reprise)
17. Hazards Of Love IV (The Drowned)
* One possible exception to this that came to mind as I was writing this piece is Dream Theater’s Metropolis II: Scenes From A Memory. I didn’t see the point in using such an obscure album as a key reference, but if any crazy metalheads out there want to call me out on that one, I’ll willingly surrender.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.