I can't believe I'm doing this. I am dividing my review in two parts to avoid spoilers. The Decemberists' new album, The Hazards of Love, is a rock opera/concept album and as such has a contiguous plot with a beginning, middle and end. Whereas usually I discuss the music and lyrics of an album together, something is telling me I should leave the story separate from the discussion of the album itself to avoid spoiling the plot for anyone who values this sort of thing. Perhaps I am erring needlessly on the side of caution—but better safe than sorry. I am, you see, one of those people. You know the sort. We're the ones who read spoilers before we see movies and to the annoyance of our friends, we don't see the big deal about the element of surprise (it's his sled! he was dead the whole time! it was Earth all along! he's really both dudes!)—heck, I just sped my way through all four seasons of Battlestar Galactica knowing exactly who all the Cylons were from the get-go, and it ruined nothing for me. I can appreciate, however, that there are people out there not like me. For their benefit, discussion of the details of the plot has been relegated to the second half of this review.
As a rock opera, this is more of a Tommy than a Quadrophenia. Its strength comes from the unity of the whole and not so much from individual songs. Even when there are strong contenders for radio singles ("The Rake's Song," "The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)" or "The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid," for example), the endings of any song are nebulous or abrupt (as you might have noticed in my podcast #18 with "The Rake's Song), since nearly all of the tracks segue into one another. The album works more in leitmotifs than singles, and thus is perhaps better suited for listening as a contiguous whole than a shuffled Decemberists playlist.
The music, as to be expected, is good. Colin Meloy has been proving since Tarkio that he's damn near incapable of writing a bad song. Another reason, however, to set this album aside from Castaways and Cutouts, Her Majesty The Decemberists and the rest of the band's oeuvre is that with a few exceptions, the majority of the songs on The Hazards of Love are darker and heavier. Without spoiling too much, I will say that the story of the album is not a happy one and themes like anger and revenge emerge in the music as guitars much more heavily distorted than ere a Decemberist has wielded before. The sound is not out of place, however: the harsher tone is organic to the songs where it emerges and doesn't sound forced. Though this is certainly a darker Decemberists (Jenny Conlee's organs, accordions, et al. are present, but not as much as in previous releases), the marriage of metal to folk music is not unheard of: as Meloy himself points out in an interview, Sandy Denny (British folk revivalist in the 60s and 70s, frequent contributor to The Strawbs and Fairport Convention) sang with Robert Plant on "The Battle of Evermore."
About the only unforgivable musical moment on the album is the homage (either knowing or unknowing) to Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" in the acoustic guitar riff to "Margaret in Captivity." Why nobody vetoed that is beyond me.
Becky Stark (of Lavender Diamond) and Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) round out the cast of characters as Margaret and the Forest Queen to Meloy's William/The Rake/narrative voice. Apparently Jim James (of My Morning Jacket) and Robyn Hitchcock are also on the album somewhere, but I can't tell exactly where. Perhaps James is in the Pixies-like "oo-oo-oo-oo" backup vocals on "The Wanting Comes in Waves," but your guess is as good as mine.
A solid outing for The Decemberists, though probably not the album to start with if you're new to the group.
Favorite track: "The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)"
You've been warned. Spoilers ahoy.
Ok, so here's the plot of The Hazards of Love as best as I can gather it (this is a story you mostly see through what its characters are saying, and there is little third person narration to fill in the blanks). Lithesome maiden Margaret is riding through the woods when she comes upon a wounded fawn. "She being full of charity," she dismounts her horse and begins to tend to the fawn, upon which the fawn transmogrifies into a strapping young lad named William. Somewhere between tracks 2 and 3 (or perhaps in track 2, when she "heaves a sigh"), they have sex and Margaret gets pregnant. Flash forward to the time in which she's beginning to show: it becomes clear that William isn't in the picture (not that this is surprising, since he's a changeling—how ever would she explain that one to Mom and Dad?), and aching for love, she goes back to the woods where they first met to track him down. After some initial trouble meeting up, they get together and reprise their antics from track 2 (though a bit more explicitly, as they sing together: "And here we died our little deaths / And we were left to catch our breaths so swiftly lifting from our chests?").
Enter William's mother (well, adoptive mother, as she "Pulled [his] cradle from the reedy glen / Swore to save [him] from the world of men"), some sort of Titania-like supernatural Queen of the Forest. To see him consorting with a woman from said world of men is a bit too much for her to bear and she flies into an indignant rage ("This is how I am repaid," she repeatedly moans). William then makes the first of several unwise bargains: "Grant me freedom to enjoy this night," he says, "And I'll return to you at break of light." Just one more night with his true love? This is just asking for an unhappy ending, isn't it? William's mother assents: "And if I grant you this favor, to hand you / Your life for the evening I will retake by morning / And so consider it your debt repaid."
Enter The Rake, a nameless no-goodnik, who introduces himself with the following biographical details: married at 21, his rakish ways are initially satisfied by his young wife "Until her womb start spilling out babies." Three children are born and the fourth "died on delivery / Mercifully taking her mother along." Wanting to get back to his life of drinking and whoring, he "divests" his "burden," killing all three children, untroubled by his actions: "Expect you think that I should be haunted / But it never really bothers me." Oooh ... foreshadowing! The Rake, it appears, has been watching Margaret and William in the woods and absconds with Margaret slung across his horse.
Arriving at Annan Water, a rather tumultuous river, he attracts the attention of William's mother. Revisiting her feelings of betrayal from William's actions, she assists The Rake in crossing the river, her reasoning being that The Rake is doing her a favor by removing Margaret—"this temptation that's troubled my innocent child"—from William's life. William, right behind the two of them, arrives at Annan and (of course) cannot cross it without some sort of supernatural assistance. Given that his mother isn't going to be doing him any favors any time soon, he makes his second unwise bargain with the river itself: "And if you calm, and let me pass / You may render me a wrack when I come back / So calm you waves and slow the churn / And you may have my precious bones on my return." [Note: having consulted the Oxford English Dictionary on this, I have discovered that "wrack" (among several other meanings) can mean "a wrecked ship," the flotsam and jetsam from a wrecked ship, bits of a wrecked ship or sea vegetation cast on the shore. The Decemberists: good for your vocabulary!]
After a brief scene where The Rake and Margaret enact your standard Snidely Whiplash/Nell Fenwick scene (e.g. "Don't hold out for rescue / None can hear your call"; "O my own true love / Can you hear me love?" etc.), The Rake is either distracted or killed by the ghosts of his dead children and William escapes with Margaret, crossing back over the Annan.
Remember the second unwise bargain William made? Yep. Annan collects its dues with William and Margaret in the boat as they're crossing, and they drown in one another's arms, never more to be troubled by "these hazards of love." Missing, notably, is the reasoning that drives them to mutual suicide, though the easy answer seems to be that they would be separated anyhow even if they made it across the river in one piece (see Williams first unwise bargain)—to say nothing of their demise being part of the Forbidden Love trope that dates back to Pyramus and Thisbe (the inspiration for everyone's favorite star-cross'd lovers).
Needless to say, the story is not the strong part of this album: while the lyrics are fine, the various characters' motivations are a bit thin at times and their actions not always well thought-out. This is rock music, however, and not a novel, so I'm more forgiving.