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Music Review: The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love

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For some bands, a project this arty, this intellectually pretentious, would be the kiss of death. I’m still baffled by how the Decemberists manage to pull it off. A 17-song cycle peopled with rakes and maidens and woodland queens and a shape-shifting fawn – yeah, that’s just what the hip-hop generation has been asking for.

But after the breakthrough success of 2006’s The Crane Wife, the Decemberists were emboldened to head full-tilt in the direction of folk-rock opera. It’s surely the only new indie CD with such deliberately archaic language and poetic imagery – an outpouring of bowers and willows and garlands and thistles. “But with this long last rush of air / Let’s speak our vows in starry whisper,” declares the hero, as he and his girlfriend drown themselves on the last track. Hey, party on.

And yet it does work, no doubt because lead singer/songwriter Colin Meloy is so darn invested in the project. The songs naturally suit his folksinger tenor, with its nasal quaver; he drops easily into ballad-like repetitions and alliteration, and his affinity for minor keys and Celtic melodic intervals pumps up the project with yearning and sorrow (is it just coincidence that Meloy’s name is an abbreviated form of the word “melancholy”?).

Forget the usual album strategy of assembling a set of songs with distinctly different sounds; on The Hazards of Love, melodic themes are repeated like operatic leitmotifs, woven together in a haunting (some might say humorless) minor-key tapestry, anchored by four linked songs titled “Hazards of Love.” Individual tracks matter less than the drama of the story’s arc, although certain tracks do function like arias, melodically underscoring the characters’ personalities. Guest singers have been enlisted to ramp up the dramatic texture — the Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark lends her sweetly plangent voice to the fragile heroine Margaret, while My Brightest Diamond’s Shana Worden sings the Queen with brassy fervor. Compare Meloy’s earnest vocals as the hero William to his snide delivery as the amoral Rake, whom the Queen hires to get Margaret out of the way. What could easily have turned into a bloodless, effete vanity project somehow is rescued by the Decemberists' counterintuitive artistic choices. Sure, the acoustic guitars and hammered dulcimers and cellos get a workout, but the instrumentation is just as likely to be bashing drums, power-chord electric guitars, and cacophonic synthesizers. Meloy professes a fondness for Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, as well as more obvious influences like Fairport Convention, and that crash of classic metal gives the fairy tale blood, grit, and spine.

Fairy tale it may be, but there’s an undeniable erotic subtext. William and Margaret are clearly getting it on in their flower-bedecked arbor, and Margaret’s "swelling waist" (old-school speak for a baby bump) is the first of love’s hazards to cloud their bliss. In one of the album’s most mesmerizing songs, “The Wanting Comes in Waves,” William convincingly pleads the case for carnal desire, with a surging melody that shivers up and down the scale. When it’s reprised later on the album, your ear tends to greet it like an old friend.

The story gathers up a head of steam in songs like “The Abduction of Margaret” and “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing,” with their chase-scene tempo and throbbing intensity. (Meloy could write some kick-ass soundtracks if he wanted to.) Although true love wins out in the end, in the grim spirit of the old ballads the lovers escape only by courting death.

The Decemberists actually expect you to listen to the whole album start to finish — how quaint! And yet that's really the best way to appreciate it, to surrender to its spell. If you’ve liked other work by the Decemberists, you’re bound to like this – they’ve got their trademark groove pretty well refined by now. The converse is also true; if you can’t hear lines like “And we’ll lie ‘til the corncrake crows” without smirking, this may not be your cup of tea. But grand as the musical gestures are, the Decemberists keep things steadily in the rock music vein. Though you know how the story has to turn out, it’s surprisingly easy to get swept up in it. It’s a peculiar kind of larceny, but I have to admit, I’m seduced by it.

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About Holly Hughes

  • http://marksaleski.com MarkSaleski

    totally agree. i really dig the wide range of sounds and styles on this record. it’s not often you hear power chords one minute, country-ish pedal steel the next.

  • http://cityandcountryboyandman.blogspot.com/ Garrett

    Interesting review.

    FYI.

  • http://thesonginmyheadtoday.blogspot.com Holly Hughes

    Thanks for the link, Daniel — a very thoughtful review. I hear the echoes of Brecht, but Randy Newman? I’ll have to think about that…