The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love

It is not very often that a pop-indie band releases an album as dense and layered as anything the Decemberists have released since their debut albums  in 2002. The 5 Songs EP was released in 2001, and contained excellent material, showing the potential of the Decemberists. When Castaways and Cutouts was released in 2002, the band had sealed its place in the hearts of many an indie kid. Their smart and sometimes humorous lyrics married with hook-y music immediately caught the ears of many music fans, eagerly awaiting more material. They released multiple EP’s and 3 more studio albums before The Hazards of Love.

Colin Meloy, primary songwriter and lyricist for the band took everything he learned on the way from Castaways to The Crane Wife and put it towards writing an epic folk tale that became Hazards. Meloy wrote a tale of a woman (Margaret)  who falls in love with a shape shifting forest creature (William), who she falls madly in love with upon seeing him transform into a man. They make love and she becomes pregnant. Fearing that she will be judged and rejected in her home, she leaves to find her William. His mother turns out to be a jealous forest queen, who is upset that William would spend time with another woman, and allows him on night of freedom before being kept forever byt he queen. William goes to find Margaret, and finds her kidnapped by the Rake, an evil child murdering man. He makes a deal with the forest queen to keep Margaret, as a favor for the queen helping him cross the uncrossable river with Margaret, so that William will never see her again. William makes a deal with the river to allow him passage to save his beloved. He crosses the river, to free Margaret from the Rake. He does, and the lovers try to cross the river, but William has to honor his deal with the river, and both drown upon their attempt to cross back.

Of course, with Meloy’s densely Victorian lyrics, this may be a complete fabrication; the end of the story is basically up for dispute. Does William kill the Rake? Does Margaret have her baby before drowning in the river? Does the Rake kill Margaret, and does William come upon her dead, and sings to her in death? It is unclear, but I feel the story is better for it.

Meloy has recruited some other singers to fill out parts on the album, each with a distinctive sound to them, making the album seem like an actual drama, with different actors to play the parts. The part of William is Meloy himself, his lover Margaret is sung by Becky Stark (of Lavender Diamond), with the Queen’s parts sung by Shara Warden (of My Brightest Diamond), and the Rake done by Jim James (of My Morning Jacket). The different characters are reinforced by each having a unique theme. The Queen gets the metal treatment, with a harsh electric guitar being the focus of her tracks. William and Margaret get folks-y instrumentation, with a very specif meter proclaiming them (especially William). The Rake also gets harder than usually instrumentation.

The different choices of musical style on the album underscore the mood, much as a movie score would do. Many woudl wonder “Why tell me this? Is it not common sense to allow the music assist in telling the tale by filling in gaps the words can’t?”  I say to you, this isn’t as common in modern music as you think. Meloy has a way of crafting mood music, and setting the stage for a song even before the lyrics begin. At the start of beginning of “The Hazards of Love I (The Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)”, even before the lyrics say so, the acoustic guitar tells the careful listener that there is going to be a discovery, but a bittersweet one. “The Wanting Comes in Waves (reprise)” sounds more urgent than it did the last time around, and while using the same basic riff, the band creates an entirely different mood, and even thought the lyrics are the same as before, they take on a different meaning in the context of the story.
The short of it is that The Hazards of Love is an amazing piece of work. Hearkening back to British progressive rock, most often referred to as this generation’s Jethro Tull or Fairport Convention,  Meloy and company do not disappoint long time fans, and may (hopefully) garner a new crowd of loyal followers with this effort. You can listen over and over again, gleaning new meanings from te words every time, and isn’t that what a good record should allow?

4.5/5

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