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If you'd told me at the start of 2009 that one of my favourite albums of that year would be a rock opera in the tradition of Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar I almost certainly woudn't have believed you. If you then went on to say that the album would be by Colin Meloy's band of merry folksters, The Decemberists, I might then have some cause to muster up some belief in your statement.
If there were ever a band that could make sense of the overblown nature of the rock opera it is this Portland, Oregon group. 'The Hazards of Love' was The Decemberists' fifth full length release, following 2006's 'The Crane Wife' and it finds the band in imperious form. The Decemberists are masterful storytellers with large parts of their repertoire conveying tales of brigands, heroes and sorry maidens. The previous album was bookended by the retelling of a Japanese fairytale, the eponymous Crane Wife. As such it was not so great a departure to move to the rock opera, in this case a story told in 17 parts.
The album tells the tale of Margaret, a young woman who meets a shapeshifting spirit, William, on a walk in the woodland. The pair fall in love and Margaret falls pregnant. Unfortunately the hazards of love befoul the couple. The Forest Queen doesn't want her son to leave her and a despicable rake kidnaps and defiles poor Margaret. To complicate matters further, William may or may not be the resurrected son of The Rake who murdered his own three children. The tale ends with pretty much everyone who appears in the story lying dead. I know people say that true love never runs smooth but this takes it to extremes...
The album itself is divided into two parts. Part one deals with the growing love between Margaret and her beau while the second deals with her kidnap by The Rake. The hazards of love themselves are a common theme throughout with four tracks of that title sprinked throughout the album. Vocal duties are picked up by Meloy, who plays all of the male characters (which can be sometimes confusing) while Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond plays sweet Margaret. However, most impressive are the guest appearances from Shara Worden, lead singer with fellow indie sweethearts, My Brightest Diamond who conveys the power of the Forest Queen to devastating effect on tracks 'Repaid' and 'The Queen's Rebuke'.
The style is pure Decemberist, with the music enchanting, engaging and intelligent. It may not necessarily be an easy listen, but it would take a heart of stone to not be moved by the beguiling 'Isn't This a Lovely Night' and, however terrible the actions of the character, 'The Rake's Tale' is as good a pop song as one could hope to hear.
All in all, you would be hard pressed to find as inventive an album as 'The Hazards of Love' and it is on that basis that I recommend it to you.
'The Hazards of Love' was released on March 24 2009
2 The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone)
3 A Bower Scene
4 Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
5 The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)
6 The Queen's Approach
7 Isn't It a Lovely Night?
8 The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid
9 An Interlude
10 The Rake's Song
11 The Abduction of Margaret
12 The Queen's Rebuke / The Crossing
13 Annan Water
14 Margaret in Captivity
15 The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)
16 The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise)
17 The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)
Sometimes an album comes a long that makes you stop in your tracks, and this was definitely one of those. The Decemberists are an American band with a bizarre obsession with English folk, which they interweave with indie rock, prog and a whole melting pot of other influences to create something utterly unique and never less than spellbinding.
This is a massive, sprawling concept album, telling the tragic story of the heroine Margaret, who falls in love with a forest-dwelling shape-shifter called William, incurring the wrath of the jealous Forest Queen, and encountering the villainous Rake on the way. Although ostensibly very pretentious, the story is beautifully told, both lyrically and musical, with light moments interluded with dark forboding and giddy chase scenes. At times it's quite heavy guitar-wise, much more so that previous Decemberists albums, but it never veers too far away from its folky influences.
The slightly "hey nonny no" feel at times may put off a few, but this is a brilliant and complex composition that deserves a good few listens.
This album is so good it makes me cry.
To call it ambitious would be an understatement, as it aims to tell a complete fairy tale, employing a wide variety of musical styles, instruments and vocals along the way. In doing so, it also incorporates traditional folk concepts and some awesome guest appearances. As a rock piece, this would happily be called a concept album. As a folk piece, it features some great songs and ideas. As a comprehensive package, it does much more.
As is usually the way with soundtracks (as this is in some ways - in fact a complete film piece was used as a backdrop for a couple of special live shows), the central theme is introduced musically right from the start. The rest of the album dips in and out of this theme, expanding on ideas and phrases throughout. Tried and tested in classical and jazz music, it is not a style that is often used effectively in rock/folk music. The use here is absolutely astounding, as the picture is sketched, then coloured and layered in beautiful phrases.
The story contained within the album is not an easy one to immediately grasp in depth. However, this is not a concern as it grows upon each listen, which I believe is the intended effect (as was discussed in an interview which I heard which was what sold me to this album in the first place). Roughly speaking, a shape shifting fawn falls in love with our heroine Margaret. As they meet some unsavoury and powerful individuals (a jealous queen and an abduction by a man who murders his own children)along the way, they are ushered towards the inevitable fate of death in each others arms.
Musically speaking, there is a broad range of sounds to enjoy here:
Prelude : The album starts so gently, it takes nearly a minute before you can really hear anything. A gentle throb of a keyboard sound builds with rising notes almost as though you are entering a church, rounded out by the introduction of some strings. This then gives way to the first proper song.
The hazards of love part one : Based around a lovely 12 string riff, it lays down the theme for the rest of the album.
A Bower Scene : It starts with a scream and has some serious guitar chugging to carry the song through. It almost feels like an old Deep Purple or Black Sabbath song in parts here, such is the heavy guitar backing.
Won't want for love : We now get to hear Margaret's vocal (Becky Stark), which has such a beautiful purity to it, I cannot see how anybody could fail to be moved by it. Accompanying it is the plodding melody which builds throughout.
The hazards of love part two : An assortment of guitar sounds pepper this lovely heartfelt tune. A well crafted love song in essence it still has that feeling of impending doom, helped in part by the delicate vulnerability of Meloy's voice.
The Queen's approach : And here comes the doom. A solo banjo repeating a simple phrase doesn't seem the obvious choice to denote one of the aforementioned hazards. However, it is so simple that in context there seems that nothing else would do the job as well. Throughout this album I found this to be the case. The changes of pace and the use of certain instruments do not necessarily make sense at first listen. However, on repeated listens it fits better and better until I found myself awestruck at how the whole thing pieces together.
Isn't it a lovely night : Steel guitar and accordion waltz their way through this little country evening number reflecting the post coital happiness of our lovers.
The wanting comes in waves : From the moment the harpsichord creeps in at the beginning of the song, the goose bumps rise up on my arms. By the time the voice of the Queen marches in, I am completely under her spell. Shara Worden provides the vocal here, and in doing so pretty much steals the show. It has power, authority and sex wailing over a sort of bluesy guitar riff.
Interlude : It does exactly what it says on the tin. It relieves the tension with a delicate piece of guitar work slightly reminiscent of early 70s Genesis.
The Rake : Such a despicable character, it is hard not to love him in a pantomime sort of way.. Booming drums announce the presence of the rake character and some twisted and smart lyrics -
" I was wedded and it whetted my thirst/Until her womb start spilling out babies/Only then did I reckon my curse".
The Abduction of Margaret : The song is essentially the Bower Scene developed to mark the next stage of the story.
The Queen's rebuke/The Crossing: As if the story didn't have enough depth, the history of the Queen and William is played out here accompanied by truly growling guitar noise. The use of the Hammond here to break up the phrases gives a lovely counterpoint to the wailing guitars. You would easily be forgiven at this point for thinking you were listening to a 70s prog rock album.
Annan Water : Jangling guitars carry along a good strong folk song, with the added texture of a haunting minor organ sound.
Margaret in Captivity : Some nice guitar picking accompany the sinister taunts of the rake as he has Margaret bound up after abducting her. This is alternated with the use of crashing cymbals and soaring keyboards as Margaret calls out to her lost love.
The hazards of love 3 : Truly haunting lyrically and musically. Harpsichord and eerie discordant strings mark the return of the rake's dead children.
The wanting comes in waves reprise : Lyrically gives the 'wanting comes in waves' phrase an added dimension to the rest of the album. I am led to understand this almost becomes a chant in the live shows. It does seem to denote an underlying obsession the band have with water based disaster and unrequited love (I dread to think where this comes from).
The hazards of love 4 : Everything comes together at the end superbly. The instrumentation used throughout makes a return for this finale which is one of the finest bitter sweet love songs ever penned. Mid tempo and somehow managing to sound like a funeral dirge, a love song and a celebration at the same time.
In summary, well-crafted progressive folk rock put together with sensitivity and some great songs along the way. I can see how this would not be everybody's bag, but it ticked nearly every box for me.
A few years ago, my then girlfriend, introduced me to a band named the Decemberists, and their then current album, "Picaresque". Infused with a swanky sea-shanty feel, I fell in love with the band, and the album became quite a favourite of mine for some time. They followed it up with "The Crane Wife", in 2006, which had a similar feel to it, and was crammed with another host of awesome songs, which I was able to see live, when they came to the Junction in Cambridge.
I didn't realise that they had a new album out. It wasn't until reading various reviews on the NME website, that I noticed that in March, they had released "Hazards of Love", their fifth studio album. I quickly hunted it out, and here I am, with it neatly set in my iPod for listening to the first time.
The Band and Hazards of Love
The Decemberists come from Portland, Oregon and formed in 2000 and the band took their name from the 1825 Decembrist Revolt. Fronted by Colin Melory, along with Chris Funk (what a name!), Jenny Conlee, Nate Query and John Meoen. The band feature a strange combination of instruments, aside from the regular guitars, drums and keyboards. Throw in a Hammond organ, accordion, melodica and even a double bass which all add greatly to their strange sounds, especially in their two former albums.
'The Hazards of Love' was released on 24th March this year, and is a concept album based around the story of a woman named Margaret, who falls in love with a shape shifter, and forest dweller. A jealous forest queen and many other recurring characters then bring in conflict to the story. In that way, it is similar to 'The Crane Wife', which also told a story.
Running at nearly three minutes, we have this moody little instrumental. It starts off with just a bassy line, which doesn't sound of anything, gaining gradually in volume. It sounds a little like an aeroplane in the sky actually... then it comes in with organ sounds. Really gothic sounding, slightly 1500's church like. It then ranges, differentiating between something really moody, and slight optimism, before some strings come in and the track gently moulds into...
The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone)
Acoustic guitars gently plucked as the chords from the prelude fade out. This jangly sound continues throughout, and Melory's rather unique sounding voice comes in. It is rather simple musically, just the guitar, and a faint hint of keyboards in parts, nothing special. But Melory's voice can carry it, and still create something so different from other generic sounds of today. Towards the middle, there is some slight change, as the drums kick in, and it sounds much more like an actual song. It really isn't anything to write home about, especially when compared to how awesome some of the songs from the two preceding albums were.
A Bower Scene
Again, the song rapidly changes into the next. A deep thudding bass line, with the drums gently behind, and a sprinkling of guitar dusted softly over it, creates something which does indeed sound interesting. Then the vocals edge in for a couple of lines, then alternating between the bassy thing and the lyrics. A change then with some overdriven guitar for a couple of chords, which then appears to disappear for a while. It returns a minute or so later, and that sounds pretty cool, and just ends the song. At just over 2 minutes long, it isn't your average length piece, and it isn't that good either. It has some auditory pleasing bits, but just sounds like a jumble of oddments thrown together repeating in some sequence. Not what I expect from the Decemberists...
Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
Again using heavy bass line, with a stronger drum beat this time, and the guitar sounding better formed, the opening lyrics are sang by Becky Stark, the guest vocalist they brought in to sing as Margaret. It is a nice change from Melory's voice, and is what I associate with the Decemberists, guest female vocals. Her voice is soft and really pretty sounding, the music underneath it, comprises of the best parts of the preceding songs, the jangly acoustic from one track, the overdrive bit, the drums, the bass line, the highlights of the weaker tracks, mixed, is excellent. This is what I had been expecting in the album, but it still isn't really as good as the tracks on 'Picaresque' or 'The Crane Wife'.
The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager all)
Starting with the acoustic guitar gently lulling out some simple chords, and a deep, almost tribal drum beat in the background. There is then some horrible poppy sounding effects on top, like a sprinkling sound, which I suppose is to suggest some form of magic, but I don't like it. It follows on along these same lines, the acoustic disappearing in the chorus, replaced by the electric, slightly overdriven guitar. Then there is a little, breakdown section which doesn't add anything to the song at all. Back to the verses, and you can now hear some of the organ or whatever from the prelude gently sitting in the background. Shame it isn't more dominant. I can't hide the fact, that yet again, I am disappointed by this song. It just isn't special at all.
The Queens Approach
Only 29 seconds long, this is a nice interlude. Has an Arabic feeling guitar or banjo or something played, and just folds gradually into..
Isn't it a Lovely Night
Oooh! I can hear an accordion! Yes!!! Finally, something sounding much more like the Decemberists that I know and love. Sang again by the female. It has soft played guitar, entwined with the accordion giving a sea feel. It is what I loved about the other albums. The music is really gentle, and her voice melts over it, they go together perfectly. Later in the song, is an instrumental section, where the accordion leads using the tune to which Stark was singing, accompanied by another accordion in the background. It is great, relaxing, and very Decemberist!
The Wanting comes in Waves / Repaid
A high pitched guitar now, (well stringing instrument). It opens with a nice series of notes then a harsh sounding chord. Repeating slowly, as Melory's voice enters, and the combination is awesome. His unique voice suits this stranger sound music perfectly. The drums enter, and some backing "ooohs", and the songs tempo rises and rises. It really has a surreal sound to it, which, close your eyes and you can imagine the situation he sings of.
It changes two minutes in, the strange instrument has gone, and now we have the normal drums, bass and guitar trio going on. But the main riff the guitar plays is reminiscent of that which was played by the strange guitar thing. This change also saw a change in the vocals, with a female singer now in (different to previous tracks though). She has a deeper air to her voice, and it is much stronger, more soulful.
Another two minutes pass, and we return to the weird guitar thingy and the music from the first section, and it is, yet again great. This song, is a nice combination of more normal music and the Decemberists, and it is definitely enjoyable. It redeems the albums previously plain tracks, and gives me hope for the nine songs which are still to come.
Well, simple title I suppose. A minute and a half of music here. Simply starting as some notes on the guitar played over and over before increasing the intricacy slightly by adding another guitar on top, and, I think, a gently hint of that weird guitar from before..
It has a strange feel to it, it physically relaxes you, well me anyway, and I think they should have perhaps worked it into a proper song, since it is a nice piece of music.
The Rake's Song
Starting with a strong acoustic guitar sound, then some keyboards I think, a patter on the drums, teasing before they kick in in earnest. A low, mechanical buzz acting as bass hits your ears too. This strange mixing of music, the drums sounding like steel roofs being pelted with organised rain, and the buzz sounding slightly like the beginning of one of the Kaiser Cheifs songs from their debut, all sounds pretty good to me. It is a catchy track, and I can see why it was their leading track from the album, made available as a free download via MySpace. I definitely like it, and is another track redeeming from the negative rating I would currently be awarding the album.
The Abduction of Margaret
A thudding bass line, and the drums ready to jump in at any moment. There is the same guitar sequence from one of the other tracks, although, I am not sure which. It pretty much sounds like a direct regurgitation from a previous song, so earns no extra credit in my view.
The Queen's Rebuke / The Crossing
Sang by Shara Worden, another guest vocalist. She has a deep, strong voice, possibly the same person as in "Repaid", though I am not certain. Her voice really carries the song, along with the background "ooh" which come from another lady. Musically it's the basic thudding bass and overdriven guitars from preceding tracks. I am getting so annoyed by it now. However, it does have a nice little solo sort of piece, which sounds pretty good in the middle, so I suppose I can let the repetition slip for this track. The ending of the track then has some organs in it, but in a horrible plain generic way, not in something I would give them credit for. But it is laced under a cool little guitar sequence. A mixed track at best.
The guitar that opens this is nice, its fast paced, sounds like we should be expecting a good track. It has a Native American feel to it, like a tribal thing, yet his voice doesn't go with that, it sounds like he is singing too strong for that, in parts at least. When he sings softer, it blends almost magically. The bass line which enters nearly two minutes in and the associated drums back up the Native American feeling. It is a very Decemberists track, and I really like it. It has a break down later, wit the organ playing, now sounding like a gone wrong wedding, but that is over soon, and back to the better piece, with a nice improvement, which is that odd guitar sound which I find most alluring. It then ends with another broken down piece, yet this time the organs are mixed with guitar, and it sounds nice, the change in vocal tone is very smooth, and it really ends the song off on a high.
Margaret in Captivity
In, YET again, with a similar sound guitar sequence of notes. It is getting tedious now, this isn't anything special at all. I am actually at the point, where I really want to give up listening to the album, and cannot be arsed to continue, with what am sure will be, more of the same. The later bass line, the organs, the overdriven guitar, all the same. I could actually strangle someone, it is that infuriating. What is the track like? Just scroll up and read the comments on one of the others, you'll get the idea. I will however, give it 1 mark, for the ending, which has a nice strings arrangement, which is really peaceful, and emotive.
Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge)
Speed up that sequence from "The Wanting comes in waves", and play it on the electric guitar, and you have the opening. Not repetitive though - no, for once the repeat is - AWESOME. It is catchy, sounds like a shanty piece. It instantly takes over my feet as they tap along to the chords and sounds. I love it, but then it disappears into some little jangles, on what I think is a keyboard, and what sounds like a couple of kids singing, with some slight distortion in their voices. The initial magic of the opening has unfortunately disappeared. Midway, there is a strange screeching sound, which god knows why it's there, sounds like the recording has gone wrong, and its some digital junk. I'm not sure what they were thinking. I don't know what it is supposed to be revenge on, but, it seems unfair that its revenge on people with ears.
The Wanting comes in Waves (reprise)
Pretty much the beginning of the previous track, but then kept constant, with the music from the first time the wanting came in waves, it's a lot shorter though, and near the end has some strings and bits, and a cool fast paced keyboard piece, and just sounds quite awesome. A decent reprise for sure, yet at the end, it sounds like Aliens have landed and captured the singer, as he cuts of suddenly wit the sound of some strange craft...
The Hazards of Love 4 (Drowned)
Opening acoustically, but wait, it sounds more original than the previous openings, not something recycled from an early track!! It is a soft track, which keeps blending into the background, and I forget I am suppose to be paying attention to it. When the drums come in, it keeps a gentle pace, but the overall feel of the song improves, it feels a tad more complete. I would actually cite this as a stronger track, but it still sounds quite generic, something a million of other groups could pen and produce. No swanky instruments, no accordions or anything weird. No shanty sound, nothing giving it a unique edge.
My Final Thoughts
I had been expecting a proper Decemberists album. Something which had this difference, something amazingly unusual. I had been used to things like 'The Mariner's Revenge Song' which is a real sea shanty, and is unbelievably unlike anything I had ever heard. The two albums I had, were just, different, and flawless, they were told stories, but didn't repeat themselves. They feel fresh every time you listen to them, but this...
I haven't actually been so disappointed with an album in a long time. None of the tracks feel like they will grow on me any more than they already have. I know it's designed to be a concept album, and so, with that, you expect linking themes, and ideas, but, I have heard plenty of concept albums (Pink Floyd, Roger Waters) which while running their themes, and links in music, they do not at all sound repetitive and boring. Even 'The Crane Wife' was somewhat of a conceptual album too, wasn't anywhere near as repeating as this.
There was obviously, the odd redeeming feature, a couple of tracks, which were great, but it is like mixing honey in petrol, it just won't taste nice on the whole. This is sure to be an album which slips from my collection rather easily, and I shouldn't think that I will return to listening to it anytime soon. Maybe, give it a few months, a year whatever, I will return and give them a precious second chance to impress me, but I doubt it.
I cannot hide my disappointment, and think that a two star rating is all it deserves, narrowly avoiding a one by the offerings of the odd track. If you really fancy giving it a listen, try out "Isn't it a Lovely Night" and "The Wanting comes in Waves / Repaid" since they are both pretty decent tracks. But leave the rest be, unless you are an avid Decemberists lover, or fan of repetitive music, repetitive music, repetitive music, repetitive music...
They even had the opportunity, with "The Queen's Approach" to add another decent track, but leaving it as a 29 second interlude was a poor effort, and just left further bitter feelings that they didn't bother expanding on it.
Admittedly, I haven't actually listened to their first two albums, so maybe, this is actually what they are normally like, but from what I had listened to, I was expecting something great. They didn't deliver, and I wouldn't recommend this at all!
Disc #1 Tracklisting 1 Prelude 2 The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle The Thistles Undone 3 Bower Scene 4 Won't Want For Love (Margaret In The Taiga) 5 Wager All 6 Queen's Approach 7 Isn't It A Lovely Night 8 Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid 9 Interlude 10 Rake's Song 11 Abduction Of Margaret 12 Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing 13 Annan Water 14 Margaret In Captivity 15 Revenge 16 Wanting Comes In Waves 17 Drowned