The Decemberists has always been ambitious. While mostly, and without any rivals, implanted in the realm of Folk/Canterbury revival, the group has also been known to include Prog Rock into its foray. The members have already created gems exceeding ten minutes, including the eighteen-minute masterpiece “The Tain”, but with their new work, The Hazards of Love, they’ve reached a new level. Ideally viewed as an hour long piece broken into seventeen parts, it’s clearly their most sprawling, grand project yet. The group continues their fantastic, totally unique song structures, lyrics and instrumentation, resulting in the next evolution of a Decemberists album, and it does not disappoint.
The Portland-based quintet consists of mastermind Colin Meloy and his troop of Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query and John Moen. Meloy’s background in English folklore and unabashed, relentless interest in telling tales of love, murder and betrayal (usual concerning the sea) make of one of the most inventive songwriters of this generation. While undeniably influenced by Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention and more Proggy acts of the 70s, there has never been a band like The Decemberists.
Meloy got the idea for the album after discovering Anne Briggs’s 1966 EP, titled The Hazards of Love (which contained no such song). Somehow from that, he concocted this expansive suite. It focuses on Margaret and her lover, William, shape shifting animals, forest queens, and a lascivious rake. As with most of Meloy’s tales, there is treachery, heartache and violence. The Hazards of Love contains the classic elements such as unique male/female harmonies, brilliant contrasts between tension and peace, and a combination of uncommon string and synthesizer colors that gives the feeling of being lost at sea in a plot straight out of vintage Literary fiction. It’s a complete success.
“Prelude,” is a very simple, ominous and angst ridden combination of strings, keyboards and harmonies. It lets you know that you’re about to be told a sorrowful tale, and it segues into “The Hazards of Love 1.” With its clean, full acoustic arpeggio sound and instantly recognizable Meloy vocals (one of the coolest singers around), it’s still the same Decemberists. It would be an easy choice for a radio cut. “A Bower Cut” is a more rocking, antagonistic section, and it pumps up the adrenaline like only The Decemberists can. “Won’t Want For Love” opens with Margaret discussing her love for Will. It features their trademark trudging rhythm, as if an army is marching along. Meloy answers as William in a nice bridge using an echo effect on his voice.
“The Hazards of Love 2” is a beautiful, reflective summary in the sense of “The Crane Wife 1&2.” It features Meloy belting out his emotion with wonderful melody and accompaniment. “The Queen’s Approach” is a banjo-centered segue into “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?” It’s among the most directly, lyrically romantic songs they’ve done, as Meloy and Jenny Conlee serenade each other. Featuring an accordion and pedal steel guitar, it’s the musical version of countless film scenes, but a necessarily moment in The Hazards of Love. It’s the first time the band has gone beyond the sound of 60s and 70s folk prog, capturing the American Dream type of love represented in many musicals, like Oklahoma! It’s a short glimpse at happiness in the story before the despair and anger begins.
In a extraordinary contrast, the previous track melts into “The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid.” It’s the equivalent of seeing a death in a play immediately following a scene of immense joy. The harpsichord and Meloy’s vocals sing a melody that’s both haunting and almost effortless. It’s a sparse track before building up (as the band does expertly) to several harmonies and instruments, creating a lush, sound that makes the entire world seem bright. Then a stabbing, surprising electric guitar riff introduces an antagonist, like the evil witch in Snow White. It then fades back into the original duo of Meloy and harpsichord. The rest of the track follows this pattern, and it’s an epic on to itself.
“An Interlude” is a very warm, comforting piece using acoustic guitar, banjo and pedal steel, and it mixes optimism and loss amazingly for how simple it is. “The Rake’s Song” showcases Meloy with an angry and betrayed melody. The drums pound as the bass sounds thick as a tree. It also features children in the background (whom appear later, so perhaps it’s foreshadowing). This is The Decemberists at the most hard rocking and just plain ballsy. “The Abduction of Margaret” reprises a musical theme from “Hazards 1,” which brings a brilliant continuity and feeling that yes, this is an hour long piece. It also features amazing dynamics, as the verse gathers momentum softly to a crushingly fierce bridge, complete with a time change. “The Queen’s Rebuke/ The Crossing” is a direct continuation, as it keeps the same sharp guitar. The middle has heavy metal (yes, heavy metal on a Decemberists record) solo. The “Crossing” closing section features their more technical side, as the keyboards and guitar remind one of Tull’s A Passion Play.
And with yet another segue, “Anna Water” begins. It is simply one of Meloy’s most engaging, affective and memorable melodies yet in their career. The strumming guitar chords and wavering ambiance let us know that something substantial has just happened. The Decemberists have always been incredible at capturing emotion with simplicity, and they certainly do it here. With the bridge, the organ flails as several vocals pile up to create a great moment of peace. This track with stay with you long after it fades into “Margaret in Captivity,” which is another acoustic focused track, and it reprises a section from “Won’t Want For Love.”
“The Hazards of Love 3” opens with a much more grandiose, rocking version of the melody of “The Wanting Comes…” before centering on a waltz time version of “Hazards 1,” but instead of Meloy singing it, it is a children’s choir (brought back from “The Rake’s Song”). “The Wanting Comes In Waves” opens exactly as the last track did, but afterwards, it’s basically a faster, more layered version of the first incarnation. Finally, “The Hazards of Love 4” is an epilogue. It begins slowly paced with piano and pedal steel guitar as Meloy and Conlee serenade again. The chorus is textures with gorgeous, high pitched harmonies and strings. You can’t help but feel sorrow as the album ends, knowing that the character’s fates cannot be changed or elaborated on. The emotional journey is over.
The Hazards of Love is a masterpiece; it is art in its most honest and complex form. It is the Decemberists’ Thick As A Brick, their Mei, their Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence. While Picaresque will always be their near flawless collection of unrelated songs, this album must be judged differently, as it far more striving in telling a larger tale. While no track features melodies as catchy and intricate as most on Picaresque, nor does the band showcase their love for prog like they did with “The Tain” or “The Island” from The Crane Wife, this album, it is own way, is the band’s greatest achievement. Its amazing usage of continuity, contrasts in intensity and emotion, signature sound and overall spectacular, extended story make this a phenomenal album. The Decemberists are a band everyone should be listening to today, and The Hazards of Love, for taking the band into a new direction and level of ambition, is one of the finest records they’ll ever cut.