There has been a lot of conflicting reviews over the latest LP release from Portland’s highly regarded scholarly-rockers, The Decemberists. Before you’re able to make an accurate judgement on The Hazards of Love, however, it is important to keep one fact in mind: this is a concept album. Now, before you say “I KNOW, I do read pitchfork after all!”, think about what that means towards the way you judge the record. A normal album you’d expect to be varied, to exude growth while also retaining the essence of past records. But when viewing a concept album you can’t really judge it as a collection, you have to look at it as one, really freaking long song.
After one listen to The Hazards of Love, you’ll understand why this warning is expressed. The groups singer and mastermind Colin Meloy originally intended the albums story to be written in play form. Somewhere along the line he decided it slipped more organically into the realm of “rock opera”, and thus THOL was born. Essentially, the story covers a tale of the romance between William and Margaret, Will’s mean Queen/witch mother, and a nasty little man called The Rake. I’m not going to attempt to offer a play by play of the records story line. There are plenty of guesses out there on the Internet and frankly – I’m still not 100% sure of it.So here’s my opinion – I really enjoy this album. Although it doesn’t strike the same chord as Picaresque or Her Majesty, it feels like the album the Decemberists have been dying to get out of their system. It scales from grand to simple, mixes heavy metal with folk, and features epic guest vocals from Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond), Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), and Jim James (My Morning Jacket).
If you know much of anything about writing and plots, you know that Colin Meloy sure as hell does too. We’ve got protagonists, antagonists, irony, metaphors, foils, and character developments all wrapped up into 17 songs. But the thing to remember is that when you’re listening to it, it probably isn’t for the plot as it is for the music itself. So although Colin has scored some major literary points (doesn’t he have enough?) with this record, there isn’t much sense in focusing in on it here – let’s talk about the music, man.
There’s a lot of reoccurring scores over the course of the record, something that I find to be one of its strengths. The first is, obviously, The Hazards of Love, which grabs the title for four of the records songs and leads to the climactic claim “These hazards of love/ nevermore will trouble us”. The second is my favorite melody from the album, and one that crescendos and swells gorgeously throughout, “The wanting comes in waves”.
Interspersed with these reoccurring tracks are those that are dedicated to key events or characters in the story. The songs about our trecherous Queen are in a word: epic. “The Queens Rebuke at the Crossing” is a metal (read: Chris Funk) inspired tune with Shara Worden providing intense vocals. Margarets songs are more folk and organ inspired, softer melodies that are meant to mirror her gentle and innocent nature. The first single from the album (can this album truly have a single, I wonder?), “The Rakes Song” is the disturbing tale of our character The Rake killing off his children (although you can rest assured that they haunt him in the end).
In my opinion, the standout track from The Hazards of Love is our conclusionary track, “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)”. Although the upbeat and intense songs on the album do their work, The Decemberists strength has always been their ability to craft folksy lullabys. And a folksy lullaby that drowns the star-crossed lovers? All the better.
Experiencing this album live will definitely be the factor that makes or breaks your opinion of it, because I think it’s the setting the album is meant to be experienced in. Without seeing Colin & company act out the plots twists and turns live then its just like trying to listen to a musical soundtrack without seeing the play. Sounds alright, but what the hell is going on?
North Carolinians can catch The Decemberists perform The Hazards Of Love June 4th at Raleigh’s Memorial Hall Auditorium.