Written by: James Crothers, Special to CC2K
After years of dabbling with story telling song writing, Colin Meloy has done it: a full blown, album -long rock opera. True The Decemberists are known primarily as story telling songsmiths, but all of the band's most memorable tunes are self contained stories in and of themselves. While 2006's The Crane Wife featured a story arc spanning a couple tracks, their fifth full length effort The Hazards of Love marks the first time the Portland quintet has delved into a tale spanning a full 17 songs. To summarize the WikipediaThe Hazards of Love began when lead Decemberist Colin Meloy, long-since captivated by the British folk revival of the 60's, sought to write a title track for revered vocalist Anne Brigg's 1966 EP The Hazards of Love, which in typical Decemberists article for context, fashion led to a far more grandiose project. The Hazards of Love tells the story of Margaret and her love affair with a shape-shifting faun William. After Margaret discovers her pregnancy with William's love child, she sets out to the forest to tell William the news, and in doing so incurs the wrath of The Forest Queen who employs The Rake to separate the two lovers. Listeners who care to indulge in the tale would take care to make use of the lyric sheet that comes with the album, because while Margaret and The Queen are voiced by different vocalists (Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and the fantastic Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond respectively) Meloy sings the roll of William and The Rake, and manages to narrate the tale all at the same time (though he occasionally employs the assistance of My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Robyn Hitchcock, and The Spinanes Rebecca Gates).
Musically this is the most ambitious Decemberists album yet. The band's sound has leapt from the realm of whimsy to a place heavily influenced by progressive rock from the 1960s and 70s and takes cues from rock operas from the past, including Roger Water's Pink Floyd opus The Wall. Songs depicting Worden's wail as The Queen on the track Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid, for instance, will cause goose-bumps to rise and call to mind the music of Canadian prog rockers Black Mountain, yet the retain the lyrical thickness of Meloy's song writing. There are occasional dips into tunes more familiar to the band, the first title track for one, Annan Water for another, and beautiful finger picking instrumentals such as on An Interlude before the listener is assaulted with the intensity of a scene like that of the Led Zeppelin style guitar work on tracks like Margaret in Captivity.
There are no discernible singles on the record, which is by no means a bad thing. In fact, it makes it all the more amazing that this is only the second effort by the band on Capital Records and they still are able to put out an epic piece of work of this scope. It is truly applause worthy that in this day of iPod fueled, single happy music consumption that a label will release an album with no track to easily promote or create a video around. While the tales Chimbly Sweeps and Barrow Boys are gone, The Decemberists brand of lyrical fantasy remains intact, enveloped in a thoroughly enjoyable prog-rock opera with a great supporting cast even if you need liner notes to follow what exactly is going on.
The Rake's Song is currently available from the band's website, and introduces one of the villains of the story. The Hazards of Love will be released March 24th on Capital Records.