Let’s get something straight up front, The Decemberists are not cool, at least not in that sexy, cock-rock kind of way. In fact the one word that comes to mind when I think of this band is, well…nerdy. Just by looking at a photo of this band, you can say with perfect certainty that you’ll never hear the phrase: “oh, I got that scar from the mosh pit at The Decemberists show.” And luckily, no one will ever have to hand over the “not cool” memo to the members because they seem pretty satisfied with themselves and their place in the musical universe. They own their pretentiousness with more humility than one would expect from authors of lyrics like “when will thou trouble the water in the cistern.” I know, I know…its lines like this make the album and the band seem a bit ridiculous; but please hear me when I say that The Hazards of Love while undoubtedly ironic and occasionally ostentatious, is anything but ridiculous.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this is the album Decemberists lead singer, Colin Meloy has been itching to make his entire career. I mean, we all should have seen it coming. He has given us fair warning. There was the 2004 EP The Tain, which contained the 18 minute long musical retelling of an Irish folk legend. And who can forget the 8 minute long “The Mariners” from Picaresque that told the tale of sailors who have the misfortune of being eaten by a whale. In truth, the signs have all been pointing in this direction even as far back as Meloy’s college career as a creative writing major. His passion for writing coupled with his love of British folk and prog-rock finally culminated in the production of The Hazards of Love, an epic, 17-song love story full of shape shifters, evil queens and sexual deviants.
Yes, this is a concept album…and I can feel people rolling their eyes even as I sit here typing. Honestly, concept albums very rarely come out as anything but a joke, and artists like Jethro Tull and Bowie didn’t do much to help the stereotypes. But this isn’t a Ziggy Stardust kind of concept record. This is the masterful workings of Meloy’s beautiful and clever writing set to an often astounding score. Nothing about it feels unnatural.
Meloy admits that The Hazards of Love started out as a play to be performed live in concert, but it was about midway through the process when he realized its potential to become a rock opera by merging the sounds of late 60s folk with the 70s prog-rock music he loves so much. The 17 songs comprising the album feature a prelude, an interlude and a couple of reprises, which allow for thematic changes as well as for the beautiful transitioning moments in the plot line.
Hazards is the story of—deep breath—Margaret, who encounters an injured faun in the forest after wandering out of her village. During her attempt to tend to the injured faun, she discovers that said faun is actually a shape-shifting man named William. They fall in love and upon returning to her village, Margaret finds out that she’s , uh oh, pregnant. Not able to stay in her village, she goes back into the woods to find William. Little does she know that William’s adopted mother is the Queen of the Forest and she’s the typical over-bearing, jealous mother-type. The Queen hires a man only known as The Rake to get rid of Margaret. Upon discovering that The Rake has taken his lover across the deadly river to his fortress, William goes after them making a deal with the River. He gains safe passage across in exchange for his life when he returns. In a moment of potential joy, William saves Margaret from her murderous captor and sets out to return to the forest. But the River remembers the bargain; and in a tragic turn, the River takes the lovers. Their last breaths are the whispers of vows to one another with only the lapping waves as their witness.
Meloy does double duty by using his strange, and instrument-like voice to play both the heroic William and the villainous rake. Making a guest appearance as the Queen is My Brightest Diamond singer, Shara Worden who steals the show with her 80s rock voice during “The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid” and “The Queen’s Rebuke/ The Crossing.” Lavender Diamond’s Becky Star is enchanting as the pregnant Margaret, and her voice seems made for duets with Meloy. The vocals are beautiful and timeless throughout and they brilliantly bring this story to life. The band members are so convincing in their roles that it is still hard for me to listen to the last track “The Hazards of Love IV (The Drowned)” without becoming weepy (there, I admitted it). It is with the tragic notes of the steel guitar and the haunting line “these hazards of love, nevermore will trouble us,” that our lovers are serenaded to their watery graves; and we(or maybe just me) are left, you guessed it, heartbroken.
I’ve read numerous critiques of this album. In fact, it has become sort of an obsession of mine, reading what others think of an album I consider to be so personal. The one thing I have clearly discerned is that there is no middle ground with this album; you will either absolutely love it or absolutely hate it. Critics have panned this album for trying too hard to emulate 70s prog-rock with their use of a children’s choir (think Pink Floyd’s The Wall). They say that Meloy’s diction is too showy and exasperating. They say that the band stretched their artistic limits too far by attempting to make a rock album when clearly they are indie darlings. The list goes on and on, and I can’t help but find it odd that these respected music critics seem to have missed the album experience as a whole. Maybe the role of the children is crucial to the storyline? Who ever said that music and lyrics shouldn’t be challenging? Why can’t a band experiment with new sounds and attempt to grow as artists in the process?
Meloy has mentioned in a few interviews that this album took so much out of him, that he needed a break from creating music for a while. I think that’s how an artist should feel after a successful creative process; drained. This band did something I have never seen or heard before; they created an album with no stand alone singles. And although songs like ““The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid” ,“The Rake’s Song”, and “The Hazards of Love IV (The Drowned)” are breathtaking in and of themselves, they are meant to flow together to form the story. It was an enormous gamble and I truly hope they have found it rewarding because I have been haunted by this album since my first listen. It’s by far their best work to date.
Listen: “The Rake’s Song”
Watch a live performance of “The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid” here.