Where once The Decemberists were a modest modern rock band, albeit outsiders with literate leanings that rarely leaned toward rock’s excesses, they have gradually extended their artistic aspirations into the musical stratosphere with band leader Colin Meloy seemingly unable to find satisfaction as a storyteller within the 4 minute realm, thus setting the bar higher and higher with each release.
Whereas 2006’s The Crane Wife hinted at Meloy’s desire to tell a tale in several parts, it wasn’t done so at the mercy of the whole album. The Hazards of Love takes this to its ultimate conclusion with the entire album being one long thematically driven multi-part opus. Meloy’s fascination with the British folk revival of the 1960s, already given over to a tour-only EP by folk singer Shirley Collins, greatly influenced the direction of the album, borrowing its title from a 1966 EP by vocalist Anne Briggs. As there was no actual song with that name, he set out to write one, which in turn grew into something much larger.
The Hazards Of Love tells the tale of a woman named Margaret, her lover William, a forest queen, and in typical Meloy style, a despicable gent-come-widower who gruesomely avasts himself of his paternal responsibilities in “The Rake’s Song”. Fleshing out this opus with the help of guest vocalists (including My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark) to play character roles, The Hazards of Love quickly becomes high art for a rock record. The instrumentation and tempo varies to suit the journey, from the introductory organ of the opening track “Prelude”, through the light-hearted accordion-led sing-along of “Isn’t it a Lovely Night?” to the dual-voiced wailing rock riffery of “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” that reaches its heavy metal pinnacle on ‘The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing”. Lest it not be said, for all its twists, turns, repeated motifs (as found in the multi-part title track) and musical complexities, The Hazards of Love is an onerous undertaking.
It’s an ever increasingly odd conceit for Meloy to dispel the notion of The Decemberists being just another alternative rock band by giving over to his folk/prog-rock opera fascinations and to also assume we’re all happily along for the ride. His vision should be admired in attempting to pull it off, and to feel advanced enough as a lyricist and a musician to use each song as a broad brush stroke that when held up displays the complete picture. As a ploy, it’s a cunning one, given that those who prefer their music in a digital format will be encouraged to buy the album as a whole, rather than break the album into select parts, even when the select parts themselves break into their own often baffling prog-rock-like breakdowns.
Fans of The Decemberists are likely to yearn for simpler times, and I’m somewhat inclined to agree. Whether The Hazards of Love will stand up when held next to their other work is something that will reveal itself over time. Ultimately though, I’m more curious as to what Meloy and his crew will choose to do next. Perhaps a collaboration with his wife, the artist Carson Ellis, in producing a children’s picture book to which the band will provide the musical accompaniment? Now that is something I especially would like to see, Meloy’s strong, well-enunciated voice, in the manner of the old school ’book and tape’, informing us all to ‘now, please turn the page’.