Review Summary: In no uncertain terms: The Hazards of Love is clearly their best album, and the best of 2009 so far.
What must have been going through The Decemberists' heads as they came up with the idea for The Hazards of Love
? Colin Meloy tried to put it in a clear and simple light - 'there’s an odd bond between the music of the British folk revival and classic metal, a natural connection between, like, Fairport Convention and Black Sabbath....I think there’s a shared sense of narrative and ambiance, of moving beyond the first person in your writing, and I thought it would be interesting to mess around with that.' - and sure enough, that rings true. Similarly, the press release offers up the explanation that this is 'a 17-song suite that tells the tale of a woman named Margaret who is ravaged by a shape-shifting animal; her lover, Williams; a forest queen; and a cold-blooded, lascivious rake.' Again, true enough.
But surely there's more to it than that. There are, after all, a raft of guest vocalists here, a move unheralded in the Decemberists catalogue. There's 17 tracks spread over roughly 70 minutes, and a span of styles and instrumentation that The Crane Wife
didn't come close to, despite being heralded as a step forward into proggy and experimental territory for the band. Tellingly, it's a rock opera with genuine opera influences in its structure - there are recurring musical passages in play that weave throughout the album, and even one leitmotif taken from Picaresque
's "From My Own True Love (Lost at Sea)", presumably intentionally. No band could have come up with a record like this without a lot of dedication and a lot of forward planning.
You know what my theory is? I think The Decemberists were bored with being part of the second division of their genre, both commercially and critically. I think they were bored with looking at the top tier of 21st century American indie bands, and wondering why they weren't on that same level despite being more talented than The Shins and having more melodic nous than the Arcade Fire. And I think they've taken a conscious decision to grab the world by its throat and tell it exactly why they're one of the best bands in the world.
It's worked. I will put this in no uncertain terms: The Hazards of Love
is clearly the band's best album, and it will be a disgrace if it doesn't see them earning Album of the Year accolades.
For what it's worth, the concept behind The Hazards of Love
is absolutely barmy. To expand on the press release, the story revolves around a couple made up of a human woman named Margeret (as sung by Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond), and her lycanthrope lover William, who haunts the forest by Margeret's home town. A raft of other characters - including a jealous rival for William's affections and a marauding murderer - seek to keep the couple from being together, despite Margeret bearing William's child. When you're inspired, you're inspired, I guess. Meloy apparently originally planned this as either an operetta or a musical, before quite sensibly deciding it wouldn't work and allowing the songs to grow organically. The storyline, then - sometimes hard to pick out, very easy to ignore entirely - becomes entirely secondary to the music. Music which, by the way, is frequently astounding.
The aforementioned link between metal and folk is what drives the album, with its centrepiece "The Wanting Comes in Waves" its finest expression. Built from three section that weave in and out of one another, the song goes through territory that ranges from Cream-esque riffs to Joanna Newsom-inspired harp, back to skyscraping backing vocals and pounding drums that recall Coldplay. It's the album in microcosm, but to treat it that way would be to overlook the fact that these 6 and a half minutes, briefly reprised later, represent the band's best single achievement yet. Outside it, other highlights abound - "Won't Want For Love"'s glammy stomp, "The Rake's Song"'s deliriously unhinged treatment of infanticide, and especially, "The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)"'s Pink Floyd-esque closer, topped off by some exquisite steel guitar.
So it's glam, it's early metal, it's folk. The Hazards of Love
, for its American grandeur and ambition, is a curiously British-sounding record - T. Rex, Black Sabbath, and Fairport Convention all offer equal parts of its make-up, with some subtle and not-so-subtle nods to acts like Iron Maiden, Genesis, Jethro Tull, and Queen, all acts who took their music, but not themselves, completely and utterly seriously, and who also loved to tell silly stories. That mentality is precisely what makes all this music work - there's sincerity, but it's always tempered by self-awareness and it never tips over in pretentiousness. This has always been true of The Decemberists to an extent (think of how camp, but how genuine, a song like "I Was Meant For The Stage" was), but here it really comes to the forefront and acts as the glue that holds this record together, far more than the concept does. Perhaps, in that regard, this is the album Colin Meloy was always destined to make.
At any rate, The Hazards of Love
is shockingly good. Plenty of people will no doubt try to dismantle it, pointing to the silliness of the story, the loss of the direct and simple pop songs of Picaresque
, the use of a children's choir at one point, or by claiming the band are out of their depth attempting metal. A lot of people will simply feel that they're trying too hard, too, but does it count as trying too hard if you succeed this spectacularly? This is an album that is great upon first listen and that just keeps getting better. Epic, beautiful music to get lost in; rock bands of 2009, you've got a lot to live up to.