Review Summary: Consider it your debt repaid.
And there she came upon a white and wounded fawn singing “Oh, the hazards of love!”
You could see it coming from miles away: the hyperliterate storytellers of modern indie-music, The Decemberists, finally peaking out on their grandiosity and creating something so monstrous that it could collapse under the weight of it’s own extravagance. The beast is named The Hazards of Love
and, in all honesty, it’s quite a miracle that the hour-long concept album didn’t implode on itself somewhere along the way. I mean, seriously
. The album covers the story of Margaret, a girl who gets impregnated by a shapeshifting fawn man and stolen by a rake who maimed all of his children -- oh, and let us not forget the raging queen of the forest who rebukes the fawn man for his rampant forest sex. Frankly, with a plot synopsis such as that, you can imagine how easy it would be for The Decemberists to royally screw themselves over with The Hazards of Love. But despite all evident tackiness found in the story, Colin Meloy’s first-class wordsmithery manages to forward the kitschy plot effortlessly and the band somehow manages to make the entire ordeal sound both plausible and engaging. Like a well orchestrated play, the music and lyricism seamlessly combine to form a compelling narrative that is wild and riotous at one moment and tranquilly soothing the next. Yet above all else, the album also manages to kills two birds with one stone: The Hazards of Love
not only tells the thoroughly messed up story of Margaret, but it also tells the story of how The Decemberists managed not to sabotage themselves and their careers with what could’ve been an abhorrently pompous concept album.
So, yes, The Hazards of Love
is good. Really
good -- quite possibly perfect. It is also just as pretentious as you would expect it to be: it has a title track song suite that is broken up into four parts throughout the album, it has reoccurring musical themes and instrumentals, and it stylistically covers more ground in it’s running time than most bands do in their careers. Ambient strings and organs sinisterly start the journey in ‘Prelude’ before ‘The Hazards of Love 1’ launches the album off into folkier territory, introducing the shape-shifting deer-fellow William (Colin Meloy) and his conveniently liberal lover Margaret (Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond) with an array of succulent instrumentation and lyricism. In ‘Bower Scene’ and ‘Wouldn’t Want for Love’, bombastic classic rock riffs and aggressive musicianship forward the plot into sketchier territory quite quickly as the listeners learn that Margaret is now bearing William’s child. Yet Margaret’s want for love is not quelled by the impending offspring (will it be a fawn-let or a toddler") as she seeks out her ruminant-mammal lover William in the following few songs. In the first peaceable third of The Hazards of Love
, the moments between ‘Prelude’ and ‘Isn’t It a Lovely Night’ are particularly special musically. No matter where the story is, the band manages to musically paint a canvas to aurally embody it - whether it be the romantic atmosphere they concoct in ‘The Hazards of Love 2’ or the metallic climax of the panicky ‘A Bower Scene’, The Decemberists impeccably mimic the story instrumentally.
And then all of the sudden, The Hazards of Love
isn’t so relaxed anymore. Out of nowhere marches in the the mythological foster parent of William, the queen of the forest (Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond) and as she trots in during the acoustic ‘The Queen’s Approach’, the album tenses up it’s stomach and takes a dive into the most eclectic song The Decemberists have ever conceived: ‘The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid’. Starting eccentrically with a dark harpsichord line, the song explodes into a Coldplay-esque, falsetto lead chorus before falling into a blatantly 70’s influenced string of classic rock riffery. Worden, as the queen, steals the show completely with her expletive-worthy vocal talent. The song - arguably the band’s best - is a pretty stupendous achievement in the way it combines so many different genres and emotions without being awkward. It also marks a turn in the plot once again, as the album takes a turn into darker, ominous territory.
We meet Meloy once again vocally, this time as ‘The Rake’ in the ‘The Rake’s Song’ as he sings his criminal record quite boastfully. Meloy’s lyricism is as cryptic and top-notch as ever (“Expect that you think that I should be haunted, but it never really bothers me
”) as the band confidently thumps away the song’s simplistic but effective main motif. The following songs choreograph a multitude of different emotions and sounds as the plot skips along hazardously through it’s own movements (at this point in the story, Margaret has been stolen by the nasty Rake and William is nonetheless displeased). ‘Annan Water’ is a gem of a track that showcases the band’s ability to totally switch keys and modes halfway through a song (as explored in ‘Yankee Bayonet’ in the past) without making the listener regurgitate and ‘The Crossing’ is a seriously fun, unbridled indulgence in classic rock riffs and organ solos. A children’s choir surfaces in ‘The Hazards of 3’ as The Rake’s children return to their father to mess with his mind and although the song’s kitschy, circusy presentation could seem incredibly tacky at first, in the context of the narrative and story, the song couldn’t be any more appropriate.
But the tilt-a-whirl ride of storytelling and brilliant instrumentation does come to an eventual close -- as The Rake deals with his apparitional demon children, William debts his soul to a nasty river, rescues his lover and weds himself to Margaret in said body of water before it drowns the two of them. Doesn’t that sound stupid" Well, it kind of is. Yet Colin Meloy manages to make it sound awesome: “With this long last rush of air, we’ll speak our vows in starry whisper/And when the waves came crashing down, he closed his eyes and softly kissed her
”. This line is sort of indicative of the entire album - as the plot and album comes to a cheesy, epic close with ‘The Hazards of Love 4’, Meloy and his crew somehow manage to make it all sound great. They make a harpsichord sound right at home with a children’s choir, they make a 3/4 waltz of a song transition seamlessly into a classic rocker and, most importantly, they make an album with as ridiculous of a concept as The Hazards of Love absolutely incredible. An experience only made possible by listening to the album itself and taking the time to articulate the lyrics, The Hazards of Love
is an impeccably crafted work of art that manages to transcend it’s own pretentiousness and ambitions in order to wed narrative and melody. I don’t know how you did it, Colin Meloy, but the world is surely a better place because of it. Good luck topping this one.
And these hazards of love never more will trouble us.