Archive for March, 2009

The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love

The Rock Gods Themselves... The Decemberists  



The Rock Gods Themselves... The Decemberists

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. 


Welcome to the Forest

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.


Not Quite There

Last week, for the first time in months, I went running in shorts and a t-shirt. Despite the heavy wind toward the end of the run, it was fantastic. I thought, “Ah, here comes spring. Back to running in the sunshine.” ‘Twas not to last. This week’s been very cold, and even though I went for a good solid run on Monday (and am going to go again today, says I to self), I’ve not been able to put away those winter gloves just yet. And so what, it’s fine. Daylight Savings has given me an extra hour of sunlight every day, so that even if work takes longer than I wish (and it inevitably will), I can still go running. Oh, but I do long for the days of warm running. Those are undoubtedly the best. And too soon, for me, they cannot come.

Writing Thoughts 2

Towards the beginning of the year I listed my 2009 Reading List. Thus far, I’ve completed 3 of my assignments, and am well into my fourth. Twilight was okay, and deserves its own post. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers was interesting, but not quite the overwhelming brilliance I thought it would be (again, a separate post). I listened to a few books on C.D. while driving, the best of which was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick. The book eventually became the film, “Blade Runner,” which is entirely different, and for my money not nearly as interesting. Finally, I just finished Watchmen (look for a non-fan’s novel-film comparison in about a week).

But I have deviated, I admit it. I’m sure it will cost me dearly come September or October, when I can’t find a way to finish Don Quixote, but the library is just too tempting. I am reading a book about the New Testament which is really great (also, if you want to hear brilliant discussion of the Bible, check out the podcast, “Theology Unplugged.” It’s maybe the most intellectually complex podcast ‘ve heard). Last night, I found my way quickly through the first 50 pages of IV, by Chuck Klosterman. For all his possible douche-iness, that guy can write. But more than anything else, I want to talk about a book of essays from E.L. Doctorow called Creationists. The book is comprised of essays by Doctorow about other writers. Like many people (though not myself) he thought Edgar Allen Poe was a total hack. He also has correctly mixed feelings about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He takes on Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, the book of Genesis. But my favorite so far has been his essay on Moby Dick. He has read it 3.5 times, which is nice, because he makes up for the fact that I have no intention of ever reading it. It’s one thing to challenge yourself (see the final book on this year’s reading list), it is another to punish yourself for wanting to read. 

The essay’s formulating inquiry is simple – why did Herman Melville write such a long book, and why did he spend so much time talking about such seemingly boring things? Already, the more literary readers are going to other blogs. It’s a fair question though, and it gets him, and us, thinking, “How does a single piece of writing ever come to be what it is in the end?” Doctorow:

Nevertheless I say that no matter what your plan or inspiration, or trembling recognition for an idea that you know belongs to you, the strange endowment you set loose by the act of writing is never entirely under your control. It cannot be a matter solely of willed expression. Somewhere from the depths of your being you find a voice: it is the first and most mysterious moment of the creative act. There is no book without it. If it takes off, it appears to you to be self-governed. To some degree you will write to find out what you are writing. And you feel no sense of possession for what comes onto the pages– what you experience is a sense of discovery.

The thing is, I agree with him as much as disagree. Sometimes, it feels like my will is the propelling mechanism of the thing. Writing is not always a wondrous joy. Often, it’s a slog. It’s realizing you haven’t given the plot or characters enough thought, and what ends up on the page is an unusable mess and you could have been doing so many other things, and now you’ve got to erase all that junk and go back to square one. But what is true is there is a voice inside you, and while it may not always prod you, it continually compels you. It talks to you and with you. It will explain things to you that you were otherwise unaware. The truest thing Doctorow says is that you write to find out what you are writing. Even if you begin the story with an ending, if something is worth writing, you will have to ask yourself how and why you are coming to that ending. Many times you begin with the ending, fill in the rest, then realize that the ending no longer works. It inspired what came before it in your mind, but now things have changed. You thought you knew what you were writing because you knew the ending. But the ending of a thing is not always its meaning. The meaning is often understood in the middle, or looking back. The ending is often the culmination, sure, but how many times do you see a movie or read a book where the end is the best part? And anyway, that’s not the point, the point is that you have to listen to your writing. You have to ask your characters and your situation and your style and your literary or cinematic or theatrical conceits and symbols how they feel about all of this. Sometimes they tell you things you don’t want to hear. And that is why we have the re-write.

It Has Come to This

March 2009
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