“Hazards” a Conceptual Tour De Force for The Decemberists
March 29, 2009 · Print This Article
by Luke Pimentel, Editor
March 29, 2009
Weird things happen to so-called “alternative” bands when they hit a major label. There’s more money, more promotion, more media hullabaloo, and inevitably, more pressure to deliver music that is streamlined to attract a wider audience.
Enter folk-rock darlings The Decemberists, who found themselves in the midst of an identity crisis when confronted with their major-label debut in 2006. Would they be capable tunesmiths providing jaunty melodies matched with occasionally verbose lyrics, or purveyors of ambitious, mythology-fueled song cycles like 2004′s The Tain EP?
The resulting album, The Crane Wife, ended up splitting the difference between the two identities. Stitched between some of the most likable pop tunes in the band’s catalog to date (“O Valencia!”, “Sons and Daughters”) were two massive conceptual pieces – the undeniably proggy “The Island”, based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the three-part title suite, which told a Japanese folk tale about a shape-shifting woman and her greedy husband.
For their latest, The Hazards of Love, lead singer/songwriter Colin Meloy has decided to push the ambition envelope further, expanding themes originated in the “Crane Wife” cycle to encompass a full-length original tale. When I say “ambition”, I mean it – this album is a full-on rock opera, designed as the heir apparent to albums like The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia.
The result might not be the stuff of the Billboard Hot 100, but it certainly provides an exhilarating listen for the musically adventurous.
The Hazards of Love tells the tale of a young woman, Margaret, who falls in love with and is impregnated by a shape-shifting man-fawn living deep in the wilds of a large forest, named William. Spurned by William’s jealous and smothering mother – who also happens to be the Queen of the forest – Margaret is captured and violated by a horrific Rake, who once murdered all of his own children just to be rid of them. It is then up to William to defy his mother the Queen and rescue his one true love from the clutches of the Rake.
Amusingly enough, that is a strong and sober narrative line by rock opera standards. The Decemberists are nothing if not storytellers, and Meloy’s learned, meticulously composed wordsmithery (sample line: “the prettiest whistles won’t wrestle the thistles undone”) is built full of callbacks and signifiers that make reading the lyric sheet an unusually pleasurable experience, especially if you’re up on your Celtic motifs. Yeah, that’s right – The Decemberists actually make paying attention fun.
Musically, the power of the guitar has never been harnessed so directly or effectively by the band as it is here; it provides the key element tying the music to the lyrics through the whole album. Acoustic guitars provide the pastoral, romantic overtures that represent star cross’d lovers William and Margaret (voiced by Meloy and Lavender Diamond vocalist Becky Stark), while harsher electric guitars foreshadow the appearance of the villainous Queen (My Brightest Diamond vocalist Shara Worden) and the evil Rake (Meloy again).
Yes, there’s electric guitar in here. LOTS of it. Apparently, the Decemberists are keen to show they can bring the thunder, and they do so very convincingly on tracks like “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” and lacerating lead single “The Rake’s Song”, both of which showcase the formidable fret chops of Meloy and Chris Funk.
These harsher tunes are so strong, in fact, that it makes me wish there was more outright villainy in the piece. Conflict is always at the heart of good drama, and Meloy, perhaps sensing that his audience tends to think of The Decemberists in a folksier vein, falls back a bit too often on plaintive, romantic interludes like “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?” Fortunately, Shara Worden’s spectacular, snarling sustains as the Queen are always there to inject some much-needed balls into the proceedings (so to speak), as are the shambling slabs of headbanger guitar that often signal her presence.
In general, if I have a complaint about the record, it would be that the risks it takes feel more calculated than genuine. Meloy and his bandmates might do better – musically-speaking, anyway – to let their hair down every once in a while. So restrained and tasteful are they because of their English Lit. roots, the band often seems afraid to make the Big Gesture they want to make when they take on a project as inherently over-the-top as this. There’s no cowbell or gong on The Hazards of Love, but one gets the sense that, with all their tendencies toward flamboyant theatricality, they probably wanted to stick one in somewhere. Perhaps they should have, taste and aesthetics be damned. Then – and only then – would they have truly ascended to the lofty, bombastic realms of rock opera immortality.
Still, personal preferences aside, the band must be greatly admired for stepping outside of its comfort zone and taking this idea as far as it did. For the avalanche of influences present on the record – Zeppelin, The Raconteurs, Fleetwood Mac, Black Mountain, Arcade Fire – none of those bands have ever really tried a conceptual work with this sort of scope or focus, and it’s questionable whether any of them could pull it off as well as The Decemberists do here.
The Hazards of Love works both as a concept record and as a collection of individual tunes, which is a huge accomplishment in such ADD, download-dominated times. It ranks among The Decemberists’ best work; let’s hope there are fans out there with enough diligence and curiosity to find that out.
“The Hazards of Love” is available now in stores and on iTunes.Â For more information on The Decemberists, please visit www.decemberists.com.