Note: The Hazards of Love is a concept album—a 17-track song cycle with recurring musical and lyrical themes and a narrative thread from start to finish. Using ancient language it tells the mythical tale of a woman violated by a shape-shifting animal, her lover, a murderer and a fearsome queen.
Also Note: The Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy handles all the lead male vocals (as usual, with his sublime delivery that channels centuries of yore and modern times simultaneously), while he recruits Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark to angelically croon the part of Margaret and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden to thunderously howl the part of the Queen.
Sound: Vintage British folk, chamber-like indie pop, hard-chugging rock and sludgy heavy metal collide as one style gracefully segues into the next and recurs throughout. The disparate sounds are held together by the olde English/fantasy nature often inherent to each genre. Inexplicably, the album ends with a decidedly country-influenced track. The pedal steel, in particular, feels too modern, American and out of step with the rest of the music.
Heavy Rotation tracks: “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” (Top 20 Songs of 2009 Candidate); “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing”; “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)”
Medium Rotation tracks: “The Rake’s Song”; “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)”; “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)”; “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)”; “The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)”
Recommended: At a time when digital music has been diminishing the importance of the album, it’s excellent to hear a band deliver a work that’s best experienced as a complete unit. For the first 12 tracks, the high-brow concept, archaic lyrics and stylistic mishmash hold together impeccably—the Colin Meloy-led songs aren’t necessarily the strongest in the Decemberists repertoire (except for the superior standout “The Wanting Comes in Waves”), but the guest-female-led sections are exceptional and groundbreaking. The last five tracks limp to the finish line, though. The acoustic guitar melody in “Margaret in Captivity” too closely resembles Bon Jovi’s classic “Wanted Dead or Alive” and the finale “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)” is simply too country (yes, it’s a strong track on its own, but its odd inclusion somewhat undermines the previous 16 tracks). Despite the missteps near the end, The Hazards of Love is a noble accomplishment from a band already known for its epic storytelling and grandiose instrumentation. Perhaps the album’s greatest achievement, though, is that you don’t have to follow any of the story to be completely moved by the musical and vocal performances.
Grade: A- (Top 20 Albums of 2009 Candidate)