The Hazards of Love
In my experience, The Decemberists are one of the most divisive bands played widely in indie circles. To be clear, they are a band followed passionately as an originating of the indie niche, and quite often reviled as the artistically-overbearing parents of indie music as a whole. Even people with the most musically-diverse taste (acceptors of dance, hip hop, folk, gypsy, funk, et al.) will despise the band. Fairly, The Decemberists are not the easiest band to adopt. Colin Meloy's voice takes getting used to in a music climate that has very few nasal-wail style singers. The instrumentation is always diverse, and reminiscent of sea shanties, polkas, and loads of organ. Especially in an era in indie music noted with either electronic manipulation or guitar/drum heavy pop-rock, The Decemberists stand out as a band holding to their original folksy framework, but constantly redesigning the sound styling inside. For those fans who jumped onto the bandwagon (though more appropriately their wagon would be some kind of zeppelin or ancient wooden helicopter) via radio play of The Crane Wife, the new release The Hazards of Love may not fill the singles quota, may disappoint, and will likely create a new level of divisiveness: Old Decemberists v. New Decemberists.
Always known as high-concept, The Decemberists build a taller ladder and compel you to climb up to the "Do Not Stand On this Step" step at the very top to digest the rock opera that is The Hazards of Love. Split among 17 tracks the tale unfolds with an unnamed narrator describing the sad circumstances of his lost love, presumably Margaret, who loses her love William to a magical curse by The Queen. That's just the beginning, as magic, monsters, and Rake (a villainous and gaunt character) takes Margaret captive. The Hazards of Love is a grand fairy tale, dark and loaded with horrors. The opera feels distinctly 1800s, and played out visually, for me, as a sepia-toned silent film dealing in various levels of browns and blacks... heavy to the imagination, and entirely beautiful. The band's execution, the arrangement and the vocals by Meloy and Becky Stark are nothing but exemplary. Hammond organs, thick bass, piano and synthesizers fill out the traditional guitars and solid percussion. The album, and the story are polished and without holes or logical breaks. Essentially, when you start listening to The Hazards of Love you board an amusement park ride that is difficult to disembark from halfway through. (There should also be a sign before the ride: "You must be at least this into fantasy rock/opera to ride")
The concerns for the album come out of its cohesiveness, just as so many of its virtues are born. It is a quintessential album. A handful of songs can be broken apart from the whole, but the tone and feeling of the work in its entirety is essential to its charm. In a music-consuming world where individual tracks are purchased, and the album is drifting away, The Decemberists take a chance/make a statement here. An album can be like a film or a book. An album can generate a story that needs to be heard from first track to last. Many newer fans might be dismayed by the lack of a "Summersong" or "The Perfect Crime #2". There are no clear singles on The Hazards of Love, but that isn't really the point. It is meant for total consumption, not for mass fandom. This has translated into mixed reviews and concern that the band is not just feigning pretension, but actually is pretentious. Any good art, very honestly, requires some pretension. A great album may not have fun hooks and choruses, but still--in its genuinely serious passion to tell a story--succeed. Meloy and The Decemberists took a chance with The Hazards of Love, both at alienating their fan base, and putting cracks into a porcelain legacy, but it was a chance that needed taking in a time when the bulk of indie music seems set to merely parrot the successes of the 60s, 70s and 80s.
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