More than a singer, a songwriter, or an instrumentalist; Colin Meloy has always been a storyteller. From The Decemberists' humble debut in 2001, this has always been the case. It is for that reason, perhaps, that it's perplexing that it took the group this long to release a concept album, a record that tells one story throughout its length. 2006's brilliant The Crane Wife came close, with a story told over several tracks. Even with that under their belt, however, tackling a rock opera, a genre notoriously riddled with incoherent storytelling and major disappointments, is quite the mountain to climb - even for Meloy. Still, if any artist in today's musical world could right this troubled format, it would be Meloy. Fortunately, he has outdone not only the artists that have tried this method before, but even himself in the process.
The Hazards of Love tells the story of Margaret, a meek villager who falls in love with William, an inhabitant of a nearby magical forest. Margaret soon discovers that she is pregnant with William's child and sets off into the forest to find him. But as is so often the case with Meloy's stories, their love and future are threatened by William's jealous mother, the Queen of the forest, and a crazed, murderous widower. The album's first 8 songs set up the love story between the two central characters, while the album's second half brings the action to the story, ultimately ending with a beautiful, touching finale.
As already noted, the album's greatest strength is the story that it tells. Obviously, this should come as no surprise to any seasoned Decemberists fan, but the elongated format provides Meloy the opportunity to tell his story differently than has been done in the past. One of the devices that Meloy relies heavily on is foreshadowing, something that can't really be done on a single song. Throughout the tale, subtle imagery and lines are implemented that hint at the fate of not only William and Margaret, voiced by Meloy and Becky Stark respectively, but their antagonists as well. The implementation of foreshadowing lends itself to repeated listenings, and as the puzzle pieces all fall into place over time, I've found myself smiling at the intricacy of the tale.
One of the perils of concept albums that The Decemberists have overcome with The Hazards of Love is that they have kept the story about as coherent as possible. If one were to go back and examine all the "great" rock operas and concept albums of the past (Pink Floyd's The Wall, or The Who's Tommy), they are likely to find that the stories are weak, confusing, and stimulate little emotion from the listener. The Hazards of Love exceeds where these albums have failed, and though it's difficult to make a call on it this early in the game, it may be the greatest story that Meloy has ever told. Without question, though, it has already risen to the upper echelon of my "favorite concept albums" list.
A lot of that has not only to do with the story, but with the music as well. The Decemberists have taken a great risk in making this album as they have, relying heavily on aspects of progressive rock and metal. With the exception of "Isn't it a Lovely Night," there is little on The Hazards of Love that harkens back to the band's Victorian-era stylings of past albums. This is a rock opera, after all. With that leap comes the threat of alienating many of the fans that they have gained over the years. This album is awash with grandeur and bombast that would have never even have been considered for previous Decemberists' records. But all of it has its place on the album, and all of it feels appropriate for the story being told. For example, The Queen, voiced by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, is always accompanied by heavy metal riffs that mirror her evil, dark presence in the story. A lot of credit should be given to Meloy and Chris Funk who absolutely make these portions of the album feel natural and exciting, rather than forced. And while I'm dishing out praises, Shara Worden is a revelation as The Queen! Her few moments on the album alone make the whole thing worth listening to!
In truth, every musician who has leant their talents to the creation of this album has done a fantastic job. I do feel, however, that Jenny Conlee might have been underutilized this time around, as her skills are sort of downplayed throughout the album to make room for Meloy and Funk. There are moments where she shines, like on the instrumental "The Crossing," but these are scarce on the record. And yet despite all the musical changes that have been made to the band's sound to make this album work, I can't help but love every second of it! A Decemberists record or not, this is a fantastic work of art that I've listened to over and over again for the last few weeks. It is an album filled with beauty, emotion, and of course, Meloy's dark-twisted humor! I get chills when Shara Worden hits that last note of "Repaid," I chuckle at the ultimate fate of The Rake in "Revenge!," and a little bit of me breaks every time I hear the gorgeous finale, "The Drowned" (possibly the best song Meloy has ever written). This is an album that begs to be heard. It is one that is deserving of every positive word that it receives from myself or any other fan. The Decemberists have risked their reputation to release a record that is markedly different from anything that we have ever heard before. The result is something far too beautiful for words, too poignant for further commentary. My words end here.
1. "Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)"
2. "The Wanting Comes in Wave/Repaid"
3. "The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing"
4. "Annan Water"
5. "The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)"
10 out of 10 Stars