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The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love CD (album) cover


The Decemberists


Prog Folk

4.07 | 291 ratings

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5 stars There comes along, once in a very rare while, a musician who risks it all, who puts him/herself out on a particularly dangerous ledge, to attempt a piece of music that will either consolidate or alienate, or as it were drive away old fans at the risk of acquiring new fans. We've seen it over the years: The Who's Tommy, Jethro Tull's Thick As a Brick, perhaps Pink Floyd's The Wall. These are albums that like that Icarus fellow, dare to fly close to the sun. The Hazards of Love is such an album, a legit rock opera, and that it should be delivered at such a time, during the supposed demise of the album, is all the more remarkable. This will be a long one: I will try to outline the story, for every opera, rock or not, tells a story.

Any sufficiently pompous prog album needs a Prelude, so of course The Hazards of Love begins with such, beginning with the low drone of a Hammond, or whatever passes for that in this era, until the drawbars slowly begin opening up, morphing into a full organ prelude. I would say this Prelude, musically, does not give the idea that good things will happen in the course of the album.

We get an initial iteration of The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone), whence our heroine Margaret meets up with a wounded fawn (William) and as she tends to him, he morphs into a man, and for her effort has her loins compromised, as it were. Happens all the time; just ask that Leda. The music is folkish, with hints of Fairport and Fotheringay. The casual tempo -- suggestive of a walk in the woods -- is appropriate; the instrumentation becomes somewhat more complete as the deed is done.

A Bower Song follows, and we're in decidedly more rock territory; the ante's upped, music-wise, as it should be, for Margaret's waistline is starting to expand. The song has a pulsing beat, with the music echoing her sister's concerns: Who's the father? When are you due? Given this, Margaret decides to go back to the forest in search of William.

Won't Want For Love we find beautiful, yearning vocals from Margaret, searching for her William. The rhythm is more driven and incessant. And then comes a transition in the music, the basic rock instrumentation of the track transitions, as William calls to Margaret: Oh my own true love. The bluesy riff then continues, suggestive of Margaret still calling for William, for they are not together again yet.

Now a nice acoustic interlude follows, The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All), representing William and Margaret again joining together in the forest. The music is incredibly gentle, ringing guitars backing the vocals, and we come to understand that there is some risk in this for William, as he'd "wager all for the hazards of love", laying with his Margaret.

Well yes, he's wagering it all, for The Queen, his jealous, spiteful, adoptive mother approacheth, accompanied by a nonchalant banjo. If this were an Eagles album or a Ennio Morricone soundtrack you would well be justified in feeling a bit uneasy. Hey, it's just a little innocent melody, about 0:29 worth.

Isn't It a Lovely Night is basically a William and Margaret duet, with accordion and pedal-steel guitar for accompaniment. I never trust any song that includes a pedal-steel guitar. The aching sadness of those bent strings jerks at the heart. Being from Montana, Colin Meloy is fully aware of country music conventions. So the song advances the story: two people hopelessly in love, sharing their emotions.

The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid. The song is initially driven by a harpsichord, as William hears The Queen approaching. He cannot help himself: the wanting comes in waves. The lyrics are an apology of sorts, and then the song erupts into nice full-out rock instrumentation and Beach Boys' harmonies. The music takes a decidedly more metal aspect once The Queen shows up. In the end a bargain is struck: William shall be given one last night with Margaret, and in the morning he shall return to The Queen.

Given that the background of the story is now known, an Interlude is appropriate, for any sufficiently pompous prog album requires an interlude. It gives the listener some breathing space, a moment to contemplate what has come before, and what is yet to come.

The Rake's Song introduces a new character, The Rake. He is represented in the liner art by the Rat, and as it turns out is not one to balk at killing his own children. The song is another rocker, albeit acoustically driven. It's a simple I-VI chord progression, fitting of such a person.

The Abduction of Margaret. The music is a again up tempo, with repetition of the same musical motifs first heard in The Bower Song. The Rake kidnaps Margaret, but is unable to cross the river, Annan Water.

The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing. Musically, we are now back to The Queen's musical motif; she is now in cahoots with The Rake -- anything to get rid of Margaret -- and flies him over the river with Margaret. This song contains a particularly effective pure grunge guitar solo, worthy of Cobain at his best, followed by a nice romping piece of rock with a Emerson-esque organ solo, which I assume represents The Rake and Margaret being flown over the river.

Annan Water. Here we return to the acoustic musical world -- shimmering guitars, mandolins, acoustic bass -- with William offering a deal with the river: let me pass, to rescue Margaret, then you may have my body.

Margaret In Captivity. Interstingly, a more menacing variation of the musical motif and melody of Hazards of Love 1 provides the basis for this song. The Rake is getting ready to deal with Margaret, as he had dealt with his unwanted children. The music shifts to a 'Margaret' motif from Won't Want For Love, as she calls out to William.

Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!). Cue the music from The Wanting Comes Waves. William has arrived to save Margaret. Ah, but what's this, a children's choir? The Rake's three children are back, with revenge on their minds. The music here is a disjointed, almost hallucinogenic, take on Hazards of Love 1. I assume it is reflective of The Rake's demise.

The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise). William and Margaret head to River Annan, with appropriate musical accompaniment. "And I want this night."

The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned). William and Margaret marry, with the river acting as minister and witness, and drown. Frankly, the most beautiful song on the album, and one which I can barely listen to, given the subject matter, because it just rips out one's heart. The music is mid-tempo, perhaps a bit dirge-like, but also celebratory: we're at a wedding after all, albeit one where neither bride nor groom will survive. Meloy pulls out all the stops on this one: heartfelt vocals, sweet sweet harmonies, and of course a particularly bittersweet pedal-steel solo. "These hazards of love, nevermore will trouble us."

For anyone actually reaching this point, it's obvious I feel this is a 5. That's a given. What may not be so obvious is that the album is a particular fine blend of music, story, grandeur, risk, and a complete assimilation of the past, with regard to progressive music. I've not heard a better album this century.

jammun | 5/5 |


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