oh, the hazards of love.
I picked up a copy of The Decemberists new album, “The Hazards of Love,” before making a 3+ hour trip to New Jersey. As soon as the chorus to the second track, “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)”, I knew I was in for an interesting ride.
In a lot of ways, this is Colin Meloy’s magnum opus; it is not an album, with singles and songs that stand on their own, so much as a musical suite with movements and recurring strands of melody that link the entire piece together. It is heartfelt and strange and packed with more drama than your average Broadway musical. It is the tale of Margaret, her shapeshifting lover William, his forboding forest queen mother, children who meet a terrible fate at the hands of a ferocious rake, and finally, a creepy chorus of vengeful ghost children. The title of the album comes from an EP released by obscure British folksinger Anne Briggs. If this sounds horribly pretentious, well, it is and makes no apologies for it. But Colin Meloy is one of the few songwriters around who could pull off such a highly conceptual musical feat, with lyrics that are gently poetic and can both tell a story & provide an emotional core to the narrative, and he pulls it off beautifully.
Despite not having any real singles, since all of the songs flow together, nearly all of the songs stand on their own. The first instance of the title track, “Won’t Want for Love,” “The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All),” and “The Rake’s Song” are all fantastic tracks that work as self-contained pieces. The Decemberists even manage to get a little, well, metal on songs such as “The Queen’s Approach” and “The Abduction of Margaret.” In a lot of ways, the album is more prog-rock than folk, and has more in common with Rush than their beloved Anne Briggs. The acoustic guitar-and-accordian-heavy sound that help make The Decemberists was more intimate and twee, while this is downright anthemic. Considering the subject matter and Meloy’s ambition, it fits, even if it might be a little jarring for the audience who came to love The Decemberists as folk-rock revivalists who sang sea chanties while dressed in olde tyme garb.
I tend to have a little bit of musical ADD and rarely have the patience to listen to an album start-to-finish, but I find myself listening to “The Hazards of Love” as an entire piece and haven’t once skipped from song to song. While the song on it are fantastic, the album is greater than the sum of its parts. And the more I listen to it, the more nuances pop out and the more the melodies sink into my brain. At times, even though the album is full of original material, it feels strangely familiar, tickling some part of the collective unconscious. It’s definitely one of those most interesting pieces of music I’ve heard in a long time and serves as proof the Colin Meloy and his Decemberists are one of the most original acts in music today.