Review Summary: The wanting for something better comes in waves.
Have you ever brought home a steak, grilled it up just the way you like it, plopped it down on your plate with some baked potatoes and cut into it, only to find that it’s mostly fat? That’s how I feel about The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love
. My expectations were very high for this album after the bands previous LP The Crane Wife
became one of my favourite albums of 2006. I had heard all the news about a change in sound and the typically old fashioned and ridiculous story that was to be the albums concept, none of which phased me the slightest. This was going to rock, this was going to roll, this was going to be one heck of a tryst in the greenery. Well, the tryst was more like a quickie; it was pretty good while it lasted, but nothing special. The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love
is far from the groups best, but ultimately there’s enough to satisfy your hunger.
The “radical change” in sound turned out to not be so radical after all, in fact the whole concept and sound of the album was rather predictable if you were paying attention over the years. Colin Meloy’s clever and old fashioned word play was always prone to be put to narratives, and early albums spun individual tales for each distinct song. 2004's EP The Tain
stretched this narrative form to an 18 minute, five part suite and of course The Crane Wife
the three (er, technically two) song “Crane Wife” suite. Both The Tain
and The Crane Wife
also had bursts of a bit more muscle with distorted guitar riffs (which ironically counterpoint the subject matter, especially on The Hazards of Love
). The next natural progression (pardon the pun) would be to expand these tendencies, and that’s what we get on this album. One big narrative and plenty of metal-esque riffs. But I begin asking myself, when have I ever listened to the Decemberists with the intent to, “rock out to some epic riffs, dude?” Perhaps Meloy needs to take a break from the opium dens.
Now, this album is still distinctly a Decemberists’ album, opener “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest...)” is a typical blend of the folk, indie and slight prog influences that Meloy has harkened back to throughout the bands catalogue. The rest of the “Hazards of Love” suite (Parts II, III and IV are sprinkled throughout the album) work in similar fashion, with “Part III” being the only downfall. The circus act uses a see-sawing violin and childrens choir on a variation of the melody in the “Part I”. The song is quirky for the first few listens, then just ends up being ridiculous and tedious to sit through. Luckily, closer “Part IV” is up there with the best The Decemberists have to offer, sitting in contention as one of their best, and possibly prettiest, album closers. The slide guitar and violin in the bridge work a lot better here then in the cheesy “Isn’t It A Lovely Night?” So fans of the older, folkier stuff from the band will have plenty to sink there teeth into as you might as well throw in the pretty, instrumental interlude piece and the fun and up-tempo (fun is something that this album could use a little more of) “Annan Water”. Unfortunately, a lot of the better songs on the album are strewn in between a heck of a lot of excess fat, and as this is a concept album, the fat must be sat through or else the songs just don’t work the same.
The opening “Prelude” is perhaps the best microcosm of the problems inherent in this album. The slowly building drone really only needed to be between 1:00-1:30 but instead the band drags it out to 3:00, and as it leads in to “The Hazards of Love 1" you can’t help but think it seems like a big rip off the start of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon
. This simple three minute introduction speaks volumes about the main problem with The Hazards of Love
, it’s too freakin’ long. The second half is mainly made up of unnecessary and boring reprisals or uninteresting variations. “The Abduction of Margaret” is almost exactly the same, minus some high-hat riding on the kit, as “A Bower Scene”, as is most of “The Queens Rebuke/The Crossing” until “The Crossing” part kicks in with some cool organ parts. “The Wanting Comes In Waves (Reprise)”, no matter how awesome the initial song is, ultimately feels unnecessary and drags the album even longer then it already feels. The second half simply ruins what had been for the most part, an excellent album.
Luckily there are a few saving graces on the second half, such as the excellent “The Rake’s Song”, an up-tempo rocker, the previously mentioned “Annan Water” and the fantastic “The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid”. The song has a great, proggy harpsichord (woo!) riff, along with a great guest vocal performance by Shara Worden. In fact, the guest vocals are worth mentioning as they really lift some of the lesser songs to a better territory, particularly any song involving the character of Margaret. Oh yes, that story thing, I hardly mentioned it in the review. Well, that’s simply because I don’t really care about it. If I wanted to hear C-grade Shakespearean fables I would go to a poetry-slam at my university. Meloy is a fantastic wordsmith, but the lengthy story adds to the overblown length of the album, so I’d rather see it sacrificed for a more concise, and ultimately better album.
I was a little disappointed by The Hazards of Love
, which is unfortunate because I was expecting it to be near the top of my 2009 best of list. The album trips up under its own ambition mainly because of it’s length, which wouldn’t have been a problem if the length wasn’t due to the excessive amount of fat on the album. There are some great tracks on the album, in fact there are a lot of great tracks, but you have to sift through a lot of rubbish to get to them. Also, very few points on the album really grabbed me like, say the end of “The Crane Wife 1 and 2" when Meloy breaks the word ‘heart’ into a polysyllabic cascade. “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” comes closest to this feat, but falls just a tad short. Overall, I would recommend this album, it is pretty great. Just not that great.