Colin Meloy charmed me back in 2004, when I first picked up The Decemberists’ Castaways and Cut-Outs. Since then, he and his troupe have seemed to really hit their stride. They kinda blew up in 2005 with the super-poppy Picaresque. “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” almost makes me long for the nautical life. Then they made their major label debut in 2006 with the somewhat prog-laden (and all-around excellent) The Crane Wife.
So, after a few tease EP’s, The Decemberists have laid The Hazards of Love upon our feet. And the result is a messy experiment, whose high notes are equally countered with distasteful missteps.
Hazards was originally conceived by Meloy as a stage play. However, he found that it was unworkable, so he transcribed it into a full-length LP. Lyrically, Meloy has always tried his best to be….well, for lack of a better word, literate. It’s clear this guy loves books, and this has always been a charm for me. Hazards is a tale that focuses on a pair of star-crossed lovers, Margaret and William. After the cautionary/fairy-tale theme that glued The Crane Wife together thematically, I figured an entire album dedicated to a story would work well…………sadly I have to say that Hazards of Love is no evidence of this. From the album’s first real track, “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle The Thistles Undone)”…..(yeah, I know)…..anyway, it is easy to get confused and lost. Margaret is helping an injured animal, and is then raped by a centaur…..I think…….what?
It kinda just keeps going from there, throwing in a few more characters that can make it even more confusing. I had to read through the lyrics about 3 times before I had any idea what was going down in this tale.
So, strike one: the lyrics are not the album’s strong point. Sure, there are some stand-out moments (“The Rake’s Song,” “Annan Water”); but most of the songs only serve to muddle the tale.
However, lyrics are not the only leg The Decemberists usually have to stand on. Musically, they’ve always been able to craft some memorable hooks and choruses. There are some great tracks on this album. The first few songs of the album sound great: “The Hazards of Love 1 (yada yada yada),” “Won’t Want For Love (Margaret in the Taiga),” and “The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All).” However, the sweet quickly turns bitter.
The best evidence of this comes with the introduction of the Queen’s character in “The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid.” The beginning of it starts off good, sounding like an Arcade Fire cut. Yet, when the “/Repaid” kicks in, that wonderful taste is immediately slapped out of your mouth with a hard rock tune that feels blatantly out of place. From there on, it’s easy to lose interest.
As a whole, The Hazards of Love is kind of a restless mess; a failed stage play that comes off as a tedious album to sit through. If you can make it to the finale, “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)”, you get a slight reward for your efforts. It’s a ballad that easily makes the heart quiver…until that corny steel-pedal guitar flares up in the background.
I have no beef with Colin & Co. for taking their storytelling technique the whole nine yards. I just hope that with this out of they way, they can think of a good way to re-invent themselves. Otherwise, they’ll just be lost in the pages of a book that no one has the energy to finish.