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


The Decemberists


Prog Folk

4.08 | 271 ratings

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TGM: Orb
Prog Reviewer
2 stars The Hazards Of Love, The Decemberists, 2009

Firstly, let me say that this was my introduction to the Decemberists, I had previously heard a lot of praise for them, and that may have ended up influencing my not-quite-appreciating the whole thing (for the record, I've since heard The Crane Wife, and I thought that album was generally very good). I don't know. What I do know is that I'm not really half as impressed by this album as the other reviewers here seem to be. On the positive side, I recognise that it does have a few very good songs (the instrumentals and the Wanting Comes In Waves and Repaid sections), memorable main melodies and a boldness in developing and reprising a few melodies across the album (more of a melodies-stalking-characters-to-create-one-musical-and-lyrical-entity thing: Peter And The Wolf rather than Thick As A Brick). My grievances are basically two-fold: first, that lots of the content just doesn't seem to be adding anything to the table; yes, slight variations on established themes are appreciated when they can offer something new to the feel or mood of a piece; some of the embellishments here seem to me to simply be things that happen alongside the established themes, rather than actually altering or adding character to them. Secondly, the lyrics are a wreck and the vocals don't help: ye olde disingenuous woodsy poetry with indiscriminate alliteration aplenty, telling a fairly loose and light story (one where things happen and that's it) driven by a gaggle of stereotypes. To me, it appears imitative (of an idea rather than a precedent), uninteresting and thrown together with no sense of a poet's discrimination. Now, the vocals are equally an issue: not the basic sound of the singers' voices, but simply the fact that the parts they're singing don't appear to have much material. Essentially, the singers' parts are the melody (which can vary from great to not that great) and trying a bit harder when you're looking for a way to resolve the current bit. I like vocalists who actually contribute to the songs, have unique voices, are willing to show development from one verse to the next, who'll throw themselves into the emotions of pieces rather than playing safe, and few of the vocals on the Hazards of Love manage any of those. Now, for a rock opera, those problems are serious. For an album driven by a story, if you don't make the story itself fascinating, it should probably have interesting characters, be well-written, be sung by great voices, take look at important issues, be advanced continually by the music or simply be so bizarre, strong and bold that picking apart individual pieces feels wrong... The Hazards of Love doesn't seem to me to manage any of those, and for that, rather than a lack of good musical ideas, it really suffers in my eyes.

Prelude is exactly what you'd think it'd be, if you expected a bit of typical atmospheric brooding based on a dark organ sound. Just about non-descript enough to work as an introduction, and it sounds alright, but it doesn't really add a huge amount to the album (other than expanding the opera references). The Hazards Of Love 1 is a fairly nice Strawbsy acoustic-driven piece, with odd percussion adding a bit of flavour to a banjo and acoustic piece, and some of the vocals I described in my introduction. It does expand really nicely after its first couple of harmless minutes, with a neat drum part coming in. It's a fairly good song, even if I'm not a huge fan of the vocals and lyrics.

A Bower Scene has both the album's most awkward bit of tension-creation (I mean, it doesn't seem to be done in a remotely interesting way, with ambling guitar and thick organ) and that heavy blues explosion after which is just right.

Won't Want For Love is a real consolidation on that one, with a moody heavy blues sound emphasised by low piano notes (I have a thing for crisp, low piano notes) contrasting with a healthy female vocal and a really sweet chorus... I mean, the lyric is not something I'd admire, but the melody is very pretty and the drums provide a sort of continuity. William offers a suitably yearning response; Very neat indeed. The Hazards Of Love 2 is, fairly obviously, based on the original piece of the same name, and with some more nail-biting lyrics and vocals, as well as one really awkward melody seemingly driven by the perennial alliteration fixation of this album ('and we'll lie 'til the corncrake crows'... rhymed with 'clothes' and complimented with the vocabulary choice 'bereft' and a bit of basic metonymy seems to me a very, very awkward line... at the time you least want it), it's really not my favourite of the Hazards parts.

The Queen's Approach is an appropriate half-minute instrumental interlude with a lone banjo over a subtle, melancholy keyboard. It sort of fits as a quick characterisation. The following piece, Isn't It A Lovely Night, is just horrendous. Aside from a limp acoustic, and horrendous accordion, the female vocalist inhales audibly before just about every line (something that can annoy me in very slow-paced songs) and is following through an irksome singsong line (later on, you have a choppy and bland waltz following on from the same melody); a mildly redeeming, yearningly Gilmourish guitar part is the only feature I'd say I actually like of this one... and the lyrics are the most gallingly untrimmed yet ('and here we made a bed of barbs and thistle-down, that we had found... to lay upon the dewy ground'... erk, a lesson in not setting too much stock in your rhyme scheme).

After that, thankfully, the album's best piece washes out the aftertaste. The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid is a merging of the two songs... the fawn William taking a harpsichord-introduced, then pop-rockish, verse and chorus (with a really nice watery female vocal harmony) followed by the queen's magnificent response (for the voice and a killer riff, and the lyrics just about work well enough for this). Both the longest and the best piece on the album.

An Interlude does what it says on the tin. But it does it really nicely (huzzah for mandolins). The Rake's Song is unabashed pop-rock, which isn't bad, unless, for instance, you put the chorus as 'alright, alright, all-right'. I mean, there are moments of severe cool-folk-rock syndrome, and then that chorus pops out again or I get bored of listening to the lyrics, which clearly suggest: this is the bad guy/menacing Act II begins!

The Abduction Of Margaret begins the trend of the second act imitating the first, with a slightly harder take of A Bower Scene complete with some gnarly guitar. The Queen's back again for the next piece, with her incredibly neat motif and some supporting female vocal harmonies and splintering guitar. So, the Queen, as a rather over-protective mother, helps the bad man (boo!), and with much fairly blues organ solo, ends her second song as still the most musically appealing character of the album.

Annan Water takes us back to our bold, if slightly randy, anthropofawnic hero, in a more subdued mood and cutting a quick deal with the river. Aside from unimaginative vocals and a chorus with a slight hint of cheddar (organ does not make everything OK), it's a good, reflective piece with a subtle churn in it. Margaret in Captivity is a moody and slightly threatening reprisey piece alternated with the clarion call from Won't Want For Love.

The Hazards Of Love 3 (Revenge). Following a Wanting Comes In Waves bit which clearly shows our brave and amorous hero giving the baddy a well-deserved thrashing. Immediately, thereafter: Singsong children's chorus, and if I were being analytical, I'd say the harmless uplift of their playground harmony (again, it's a Hazards Of Love theme after a somewhat needless wanting-comes-in-waves instrumental intro) was meant to contrast with the threat implied in the lyrics, and the notion that this fun condemnation to his children's mercy and mockery is a crueller punishment for the Rake even more than unspeakable violence and torture would be. Alas, since I'm not, it's certainly a cruel punishment to listen to it. Blech. Anyway, that offence to taste overshadows the truly excellent experimental and edgy work (and harpsichord) that fills out the end of the piece.

The Wanting Comes In Waves (Reprise) does what it says on the tin. Not entirely sure that it's really needed here.

The Hazards Of Love 4 rounds off the story and is perhaps the most uninteresting thing on the album. The lyrics don't work for me, the bass part is incredibly bland and I can't say I find anything in the drums or the string additions, or the harmless positive chord it decides to leave us on. Without the nice tonight...tonight...tonight harmony and the delicate guitar solo, I'd be harsher on it, but those two components probably make it worth getting past the blandness that characterises this romantic conclusion. Not bad, per se, but I'm a firm believer in the principle that to produce a moving and touching piece you don't have to all but abandon the creativity which The Decemberists often do show. Well, it's obvious that this is not my favourite album ever, and though there are some very nice songs on it, a fair percentage of it (say, 25%) sets off my *yech, don't touch me* sensors for one reason or another and I really don't follow the story emotionally, which seems to be the album's basic aim: so, it's a two rather than a three. Anyway, if you want to start your acquaintance with The Decemberists with a good album, I'd recommend The Crane Wife, because I'm not completely convinced that this is one. Rating: Two Stars

Favourite Song: The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid or something like that.

TGM: Orb | 2/5 |


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