Music

The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love

Photo: Autumn DeWilde

Beware! Here there be shape-shifters, amoral rakes, an ill-tempered Queen, and a hell of a well-executed rock opera.


The Decemberists

The Hazards of Love

Contributors: Jim James, Robyn Hitchcock, Becky Stark, Shara Worden
Label: Capitol
US Release Date: 2009-03-24
UK Release Date: 2009-03-23
Amazon
Amazon
iTunes

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?

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.

Music

Sufjan Stevens' 'The Ascension' Is Mostly Captivating

Even though Sufjan Stevens' The Ascension is sometimes too formulaic or trivial to linger, it's still a very good, enjoyable effort.

Jordan Blum
Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Music

Sally Anne Morgan Invites Us Into a Metaphorical Safe Space on 'Thread'

With Thread, Sally Anne Morgan shows that traditional folk music is not to be smothered in revivalist praise. It's simply there as a seed with which to plant new gardens.

Music

Godcaster Make the Psych/Funk/Hard Rock Debut of the Year

Godcaster's Long Haired Locusts is a swirling, sloppy mess of guitars, drums, flutes, synths, and apparently whatever else the band had on hand in their Philly basement. It's a highly entertaining and listenable album.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.