Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Review: The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love (* * * *)

If anyone were to make a folk-rock opera influenced by English metal, it would be the Decemberists; so I imagine when information about their new record, The Hazards of Love, was released several months ago, nobody was very surprised. Still, even for a band known and loved for their ‘olde-fashioned’ descriptive narratives involving suicide, war, and/or forbidden love, completing and offering such an epic and structured album always comes with some risk. True, the indie crowd is much more willing to invest in an entire record rather than a single or two, but there’s a limit to how intertwined the various parts of the story can be before some people start losing interest.

With seventeen tracks and nearly an hour of music, The Hazards of Love walks the line of over-indulgence carefully, offering a twisted, bizarre cast of characters in an equally strange story of a woman named Margaret, her shape-shifting lover, and the jealous Forest Queen (well, what did you expect?). Fortunately, while the convoluted tale might be off-putting to some, the songs also stand well enough on their own to make the album worth digging into.

The second track, “The Hazards 0f Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone),” sets the stage for the remainder of the story, but it’s also a classic Decemberists folk tune and enjoyable even when removed from its place in the narrative. The same can be said for the many of the songs on the album, especially the grand “The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All),” the more traditional folk sounding “Annan Water,” and the melancholy, country-tinged closer, “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned).” A few of the tracks serve as little more than segues into other sections of the album and there are several interludes to break things up, but with so much material, the record never feels short on ‘real’ songs.

Still, the album is meant to be listened through all together and in sequence, and the music is especially gripping when consumed as a whole; that is, if you bother to listen closely enough to figure out the story. The arrangements wind their way through the album, often appearing in several places and lacing things together in a way that enhances and underlines the lyrical narration. The record also benefits from perfectly cast guests; Becky Stark and Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) play the two female leads, lending their gorgeous voices opposite Meloy, who plays most every other role.

Musically, the record splits its time between acoustic folk balladry and heavy, pounding metal riffs, often in the same song. It’s head-spinning and occasionally comes close to crossing the line between novel and silly, but after a couple spins, some fantastic songs work their way out of the bizarreness and even the most over-the-top moments are surprisingly fun. Songs like the metal-meets-folk rocker “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret In the Taiga),” the epic, riff-tastic “The Wanting Comes In Waves /Repaid,” and the grinding “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing” are a bit cheesy and might alienate some fans with their heavier sound, but the band’s new rock ‘n’ roll attitude is hard to deny and the execution is excellent. Plus, there’s plenty of the group’s familiar folk style to be found here as well.

The Hazards of Love is not a record I expect everybody to love, but I’m having a great time with it and I suspect I’m not the only one. The album is long, scattered, and crowded, but it’s also endlessly fascinating and very entertaining; a project that’s truly much more than the overly ambitious mess some have made it out to be. The Decemberists have expanded their sound and stretched themselves, a gamble that probably should have ended in disaster, but instead has produced something entirely fresh and remarkably satisfying. Here’s to taking chances.

Last Word: The Decemberists combine a wealth of musical influences and guest musicians into a fascinatingly deranged concept album that delivers great songs and an intriguing story.


Dustin said...

This is a great album. I can not stop listening to it. The guitars and vocals weave together well with the narrative of the album.

Jeff Luppino-Esposito said...

Very solid review! I just linked to it, keep up the good work -