The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love

There is nothing more terrifying to a music reviewer than words ‘Rock Opera’.

There is possibly nothing more terrifying to a music reviewer than the words ‘Rock Opera’, ergo – the ultimate in terms of a concept album. Add to this one of this last decade’s most eloquently lyrical songwriters, in the form of The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for extreme reactions.

Let us not forget this is the band that managed to devote almost 9 minutes to a tale of seafaring revenge; it seems fair to surmise that story telling is certainly not a foreign art at their disposal. But with great talent, it seems, comes greater responsibility and expectation. Spanning a whopping 17 tracks, and clocking in just under the hour marker, ‘The Hazards of Love’ is no whimsical endeavour. Telling the story of a young woman, Margaret, the severity of Meloy’s intention becomes apparent by ‘The Bowery Scene’ – the first act, if you will. This segment builds and builds until the size and sound of it’s riffs being dropped into the Grand Canyon for extra reverb.

‘The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid’ fixes a Jack White-styled guitar riff with the bombastic tones of Shara Worden doing her best, overbearing mother ala Grace Slick. The hefty slab of proper rock sits bookended by Meloy’s gentler, hesitant intonation and backed up by harpsichord courting Arcade Fire cooing. A split personality of an epic, which does – as opera should do – end the first half in spectacularly powerful, repeated melodies and narrative pivot.

The theme is hardly obscure, the dangers of a difficult relationship, wanting and receiving love and acceptance. The seamless transition through the tracks acts to aid questionable attention spans (ours included), but there are some missing elements in this respect. Where traditional opera, much like Shakespeare, dedicates time to the brief distractions of humour, The Decemberists have preferred to adopt a progressive and on-target approach. With titles such as ‘The Queen’s Rebuke’, ‘Revenge’ and ‘The Drowned’, to say this album reflects the sunny side of love in even keel with it’s woes, would be to miss the point entirely. The latter of the three aforementioned tracks is so charmingly harmonised that even the use of lap-steel can’t hope to diminish it’s central soul. The resolution is cemented by the lines ‘These hazards of love / Nevermore will trouble us’, while strings weave their romantic magic.

‘The Rakes Song’ that kicks things in once more, takes a hold of the speakers and vibrates them with some aggressive timpani drums and stick clicking. Similarly it suffers from the overtly tell-all nature of Meloy’s writing, which at times lacks the simplicity that could so easily transform lines like ‘Ugly Myfanwy died on delivery’ into more succinct, less snagging sentiments.

This is where ‘Hazards of Love’ falls short for a mighty body of work. It’s not as though they are singing lines that don’t belong to them, it is unmistakably the work of The Decemberists; and when they get the balance right, they can be exceptional. Despite the instrumentation and flow feeling absorbing, it is the words that smack of awkwardness for awkwardness’ sake. Why use 3 words when you can use 30? Well, in this case, the answer is because without the visual aids – as Tolkien as Meloy attempts to be – this rock opera will deliver as an exercise rather than an album.

Tags: The Decemberists, Reviews, Album Reviews

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