The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love

hazards

The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love (Capitol Records; released March 24th, 2009)

Let me start by getting some of these “greater than/less than” equations out of the way:

Millions of true Who fans know this fact: Quadrophenia > Tommy

Pink Floyd fans agree on this also: Animals > Dark Side Of The Moon (we also agree that The Wall totally sucks)

Jethro Tull fans would add: Thick As A Brick > Aqualung

…and finally, this review will prove that:

The Hazards Of Love > The Crane Wife

But, most importantly:

My Opinion > your opinion

How’s that for pretentious? I’m wallowing in pretension right about now. What goes hand in hand with pretense and rock and roll better than the good old concept album? Those aforementioned concept albums/rock operas are at the pinnacle of ostentatious 70s progressive rock, and music criticism is at the forefront of early millennium pretension. So we’re made for each other.

Enter The Decemberists; they’ve basically made a career out of concept albums- Castaways & Cutouts, Her Majesty and Picaresque could (arguably) be loosely ushered under the umbrella of musical conceptualism; The Tain, The Crane Wife and the latest record are straight-up concept albums, no argument there. The Decemeberists are a band that thrive on conceptual continuity; themes like seafarers, pre-revolutionary Russia, Shakesperean-like tragedies, etc. keep popping up in their music. I’d say they mastered their musical vision here on The Hazards Of Love; this is a monster of an album, with seamless segues, a narrative that wonderfully and expertly defines setting, characters, plot- it’s as if Colin Meloy wrote this first as a play and then set music to it.

The story line follows our heroine Margaret (voiced by Lavender Diamond‘s Becky Stark) as she wanders through the taiga meeting an assorted cast of characters in search of her lost love William, voiced by Meloy (appearing at first as a shape-shifting faun), an evil forest queen (My Brightest Diamond‘s Shara Worden, who just about steals the spotlight), the child-murdering rake, you get the idea; each song is a new scene, each act split by a mid-album instrumental.

The whole affair begins with an inaudible but slowly building church organ with a solid minute and a half hanging on a D note, before going up an octave, then another, and still another octave up before going into a B-flat which then sets upon a meandering progression that revolves around that major scale. I mention that because most of the songs are built around B-flat, but that’s just something a music nerd like me notices.

I don’t wanna give too much of the plot away, I’ll give you an abridged version- you find out she’s pregnant (in the song A Bower Scene), has baby (Isn’t It A Lovely Night?), the queen wants it (The Wanting Comes In Waves / Repaid), a terrible roustabout wants to destroy it (The Rake’s Song), Margaret eventually abducted and confronted (The Abduction Of Margaret), the river (Annan Water), the drowning (The Hazards Of Love 3 – Revenge!) and lovers re-united in death (The Hazards Of Love 4 – The Drowned).

As far as the music goes on this record; it’s everything The Decemberists are known for: Meloy‘s 12-string guitar and adenoidal vocal delivery, Jenny Conlee‘s excellent keyboard work (I think there’s even some harpsichord in there, too), Chris Funk doing everything, and Nate Query and John Moen holding down the rhythm section. Take that basic recipe and then add all these newer ingredients: excursions deep into prog-rock, replete with chase music, power chord vamps, dizzying crescendos, guest appearances from Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Robyn Hitchcock, and you may just have earned yourself this writer’s Album Of The Year…

…but with nine more months to go, anything can happen.

Tracklisting:

01  Prelude
02  The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)
03  A Bower Scene
04  Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
05  The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)
06  The Queen’s Approach
07  Isn’t It a Lovely Night?
08  The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid
09  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  The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)
16  The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise)
17  The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)


The Decemberists