Waves and Waves of Goodness
For anyone familiar with The Decemberists, it was always clear it would come to this. From the band’s nautical-themed inception to 2006’s stellar fairy tale The Crane Wife, frontman Colin Meloy and his merry gang have displayed a flair for the dramatic and whimsical. It only seems natural that on their fifth LP they would go for broke on a full-blown concept album in the form of a rock opera with excessive prog-rock, metal and folk tendencies.
The Hazards of Love is a throwback in the vein of Pink Floyd’s The Wall or The Who’s Tommy. Like these comparable ventures, Hazards does everything to excess. Meloy’s Zeppelinesque storytelling references fantasylands and magical creatures from long ago. Sonically, grandiose keyboards wind and bridge to supply the connective tissue between scenes while distortion supply fuel for tense or villainous moments. Folk interludes border on cheesiness as they accompany character development and thematic elements. It’s the Seventies at their best, and Meloy, as he has already proved for so many other things, is an avid student.
Hazards is a classic story of two star-crossed lovers, a “forest’s son and a river’s daughter,” the cursed and shapeshifting William (voiced by Meloy) and village girl Margaret (Beckey Stark of Lavender Diamond). Along the way we also meet the Forest Queen (performed masterfully by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond) who is William’s mother, and The Rake (Meloy again) whose evil actions help seal the couple’s fate.
Throughout the album, the listener begins to realize that Meloy is not just spinning a beautiful tale, but also outlining the differing outcomes for all the characters—all people, really—living in a world defined by love. William and Margaret, theirs the most obvious of stories, follow love to their death by choosing to embrace both their happiness and impending doom with equal abandon. The Queen, unable to share the love of her son, ultimately causes his death. And the diabolical Rake, unable to love at all, is eventually murdered by the children he was supposed to nurture.
Lyrically, Hazards is as much an album as a literature lesson, as Meloy employs every academic trick up his sleeve to wind this tragic episode. Coinciding with crashing guitars, escalating keys and soft folk interludes, Hazards is chock full of symbolism and recurring themes. Waves are harbingers of both love and death; curses, revenge and repayment are prominent throughout.
The softer moments of Hazards could be taken from any of the band’s preceding records, but its louder sections grab your attention as steps forward. Specifically, “A Bower Scene,” “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid,” and “The Abduction of Margaret” chug with a White Stripes blues-rock intensity new to The Decemberists. Other prominent moments are keyboard-driven, including the haunting circus melody of “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)” and the soaring “Margaret in Captivity.”
But with all the swagger and drama, Hazards’ best moments are its simplest. William’s declarations in “The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)” are sincere and heartfelt, ending in a foreshadowing wail, “I would wager all,” that sends chills down your spine. Later, William outlines his struggle to balance obedience to his mother and follow the passion of true love in “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid.” Finally, the couple’s death amongst the crashing waves in “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)” is the most powerful statement of the project. Played out over soft acoustic guitar, the two decide that rather than living apart, they’d rather have seconds of marriage to cement their true love. They hold hands as “the lapping waves lick quietly” at their ankles and their boat is eventually sucked into the river.
Some listeners might dislike the lack of standalone, hooky tracks here, but that proves to be one of the project’s largest strengths. A concept album, in its truest form, is meant to tell a story from beginning to end each time. By constructing pieces that flow from one to another without distinction, Meloy ensures that Hazards will be listened to in its entirety rather than in fragments. It’s a gutsy move, but with material this good the band’s bravado pays off tenfold. This record stands as a masterpiece. It’s poetic, dramatic, daring, and exciting material laced over crashes, lulls, and wails, just like they used to do it in the 1970’s. On The Hazards of Love, Meloy and The Decemberists have not just conquered a challenging and almost forgotten art form, they’ve also made the best record of their already impressive career.