Before we begin, you should know I’m not a reviewer of music. The history, the myriad influences every band has, the nature of musical genre – these things exist only as a facile comprehension for me. Please expect little to no depth of thought on the matters. What I am interested in is narrative and the different things that word means to different mediums of art. The narrative of a play is different from a book is different from a film is different from a painting is different from a song (and, one notion I’ve been turning over for a few days: is different from an album?).
The Decemberists have been my favorite band for a while now. They’ve made a name for themselves in the folk prog-rock scene, or rather, they have invented a folk prog rock scene here in the 21st century, and that became their calling. Their songs consistently have numerous movements, their lyrics insist on the beauty of poetics above all. Their music tells stories. They create distinct, startlingly realized characters. They write 12 minute songs about a Mariner’s Revenge called… The Mariner’s Revenge Song. They rock. And singer/songwriter Colin Meloy writes some of the best (love) songs ever.
Their fifth album, “The Hazards of Love” is a concept album centering on two of folks longest standing archetypes: Margaret and William. They are in love. He is a fawn. There is an evil queen. Sound like a Disney movie a little bit? Well, you’re not far off, but add in a family-murdering kidnapper/rapist and now you’ve got yourself the cast of characters. What do you think is going to happen? Will the fawn and the lady fall in love? Of course, silly, this is music. Will the love be challenged by the evil queen’s evil ways? You know it. Will there be frightening rapids to forge in order to save the damsel? Will she implore the trees to call to her fawn? Will the villain’s dead children rise and take revenge? Why, of why, would we be listening if the answer were no?
This is an epic folk rock opera music spectacular, just to name a few qualifiers. And you can bet that when Epic is invited, his good friend Bombastic is sure to show up. And I’m here to tell you I ate up all 58 minutes of this album. The Decemberists have always been able to infuse their music with a sense of excitement and pulse without losing their footing. This time, though, they’ve erased completely any spaces between folk and rock. A good portion of the music is basic, guitar-thrashing loudness, verging on heavy metal, and because the scope of the story is so massive, none of it feels out of place. In particular, new ground is broken in “A Bower Scene” and “Won’t Want For Love” the music for both of which are reprised in other songs later on the album, where they are driven even further. The band seems energized by this newness. You can feel them enjoying themselves breaking out of any box they’ve been put in or have put themselves in. At the same time, though, this is clearly a Decemberists’ album. They’re not aiming to depart wholly from their own core sound, and one of the best things about the album is how well they were able to blend their own staples into this story. All four parts of the titular “The Hazards of Love” feel utterly at home, as does the hilarious, macabre “The Rake’s Song.”
The Decemberists have always been comfortable with this type of music. This album isn’t a departure, but an eventuality. It was only a matter of time before songs like the 19 minute long “The Tain” was extended for a full album. And it is, “The Hazards of Love” boasts a daunting 17 tracks, but don’t be fooled. It’s an hour long song with chapter titles. And the arrangement is flawless. Characters have themes, movements are repeated, the pacing is masterful in terms of propelling us from one moment to the next, yet knowing when to stop and smell the lyrics. In fact, it is so perfect, that The Decemberists have to work a bit to keep things from feeling too controlled. So, they clipped all silences between songs, they’ve let each song overflow into the next, spilling and colliding with themselves. They surprise us by adding two female vocalists to play Margaret and the Queen, and they subvert our expectation by having a song sung entirely by children. “The Hazards of Love” is very similar, actually, to Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “There Will Be Blood.” Both are the escalation of existing ideas and motifs, taken to epic proportions. Both are brilliant examples of artists at the absolute peak of their powers taking a big risk by challenging themselves to do something so unlike anything they’ve ever done before it is guaranteed to propel themselves into a new career plateau. Both are darkly hilarious at times. Finally, while both are decidedly the most unique things either has ever done, neither is the best thing they’ve done. Which is not so much a criticism as much as it is a simple statement of a personal preference.
But one way they are different: “The Hazards of Love” is much more hopeful than Anderson’s film. The first time I heard the album, I was struck by the largeness of the rock sections, their naked intensity. The band is having a blast blasting, and I loved it too. But then I listened to it again, and again. And again tonight, all the way through, lights off, stereo turned way up. And the epic rock sections are still as powerful as ever, but this album also contains some of the band’s most beautiful love songs. The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All) has one of Meloy’s most transparently passionate statements when he cries: “I Wager All the Hazards of Love.” Also, “Annan Water” for its chorus and the final song, The Hazards of Love 4 (Drowned) and the way its lovers look past any sense of fated doom and instead look directly into each other’s eyes. The sense of calm in Meloy’s voice in the midst of crashing waves is the perfect contradiction. In fact, that’s the best description of the entire album. The songs are so varied in every way and yet so cohesive that it is something of a mind-blowing experience.
So, will you like this album? That depends. Do you like music that is actively, blatantly doing something? Do you like 58 minute concept albums? Do you like the Decemberists in general, and Colin Meloy’s linguistic gymnastics in particular? For me the answers are sure, I’m open to it, yes, and Oh God yes. This album is remarkably easy and enjoyable to listen to. I think many people will find the music so enjoyable that they’ll look forward to returning over and over and over again to pick up all the story elements.
Sirs and Ladies: a fantastically successful, blissfully enjoyable experiment.