Beware! Here there be shape-shifters, amoral rakes, an ill-tempered Queen, and a hell of a well-executed rock opera.
There have been signs that this was coming.
In 2004, the Decemberists released The Tain, an EP that consisted of a single 18-minute song, broken into movements and retelling, in its own vague way, an Irish folk legend of the same name. The band was coming off of a period of youthful exuberance, having released their debut, Castaways and Cutouts, in 2002, and its follow-up Her Majesty only a year later. And indeed The Tain, with its heavy-metal flourishes and its proudly dense lyrics, seemed in many ways as if it could only have been the product of the young and the little-known.
Their next album, 2005's Picaresque, brought them a small measure of fame, and 2006's The Crane Wife was as close to a smash-hit as a folk-rock quintet from Portland can reasonably hope to score. Both albums leaned on catchy, concise singles for success, but the band seemed unwilling to give up the taste of prog-y geek rock that they'd dipped into for The Tain. "The Mariners Revenge Song", an eight-minute epic from Picaresque, told the story of a pair of sailors who had been eaten by a whale, while The Crane Wife was bookended by the titular song cycle based on a Japanese fable.
If this all sounds rather pretentious, well, it is. But the Decemberists -- in particular, lead singer Colin Meloy -- seem to have realized that pretension is somewhat expected of them at this point, and have found a sort of freedom in that expectation. The Hazards of Love, their newest offering, is a full-fledged rock-opera about (among other things): a woman named Margaret; her shape-shifting lover, William; a grouchy forest Queen; and a coolly sociopathic rapscallion known only as "The Rake". It is, in other words, the album that the Decemberists have always wanted to make, with all of the strengths and weaknesses implied therein.
This is, as I said, a rock-opera, and is as unabashedly committed to the form as its more famous predecessors like Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway or David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. And like those albums, the details of the story here are somewhat unimportant, painted in broad strokes and more based on character and mood than it is on specific plot points. Suffice it to say that those with the time and inclination to comb through the liner notes and diagram the precise machinations of the story will be rewarded, but it's entirely possible to enjoy the album without going to such effort. (In this way, and in virtually no other, The Hazards of Love is not unlike Mulhulland Drive.)
The music here is as strong as anything that the band has ever done, though the album is distinctly different than their others -- sparser, perhaps, in timbre and in instrumentation, but more varied in style. Throughout the album the band moves from thunderous metal ("A Bower Scene") to triumphant rock and roll ("The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise)") to lovely, accordion-led waltz of "Isn't It a Lovely Night?". The Decemberists have never wanted for musical talent, and while the band is as tight as ever, it is multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk (equally capable with an electric guitar as with a hammered dulcimer) who stands out most on Hazards.
All of the male characters here are sung by Meloy. This is not a problem in and of itself -- his voice, though it takes some getting used to, is as powerful an instrument as anything plucked or struck on the album -- but it does make the story rather more confusing than it needs to be. It's an odd choice, too, because the band was perfectly willing to look to outside talent to fill the female openings, bringing in Becky Stark (from Lavender Diamond) and Shara Worden (from My Brightest Diamond) to play Margaret and the Queen, respectively. And though Stark's performance is lovely, it's Worden who steals the show from everyone, even Meloy. Her Queen is a sultry, dangerous thing, all quavering vibrato and raw power, and her two appearances (on "The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid" and "The Queen's Rebuke") are the highlights of the album. (Robyn Hitchcock and Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) also cameo on the album, but their contributions are so minor that it counts more for trivia than anything.)
There are missteps, of course. The children's choir on "The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)" is the most egregious miscalculation, and Meloy's lyrics, though excellent throughout, do sometimes border on self-parody. But listening to The Hazards of Love is thrilling, both because of the music itself and because the disc was such a sheer gamble from the first. Improbable as it seems, they just might pull it off. But if anyone could, wouldn't you expect it to be the Decemberists?