Monday, April 27, 2009

New Decemberists Worth the Concept Album Hazards

The Hazards of Love
The Decemberists


I don’t think any of us were actually surprised that The Decemberists released a concept album. It was only a matter of time that the idea Colin Meloy played with on The Tain EP would get expanded into a full length LP. Really, though, we aren’t surprised because a concept album is definitely something that The Decemberists could do well. Often hailed as ‘indie’s most literate band,’ Meloy’s penchant for legends and storytelling translates readily into creating an album like Hazards of Love.

Hazards opens with three minutes of reverb, morphing into foreboding organ chords, taking us from the modern to the mysterious enchanted Taiga (a pretty word that refers to the biome south of the tundra. In this case, knowing The Decemberists, we are probably somewhere in Siberia.) Our heroine, Margaret, en route to her fiancé, comes across a wounded fawn. She treats its injuries and, to her surprise, the fawn turns into a man, the adopted son of an evil witch-queen. Unfortunately for the pregnant Margaret, the fawn-guy has fallen in love with her, and now wants to be freed by his adopted mother. Word to the wise: don’t cross evil Siberian witch-queens.

Up to this point, the musical arrangement is pretty traditional Decemberists – plenty of acoustic guitar, skillful bass a la Nate Query, vocal harmony. It is on “The Bower Scene” where you realize what justifies this new album. In between verses, the band drops the pretense of indie-smoothness and instead completely rocks out, breaking into a very weighty metal bridge. The new musical tricks employed on this album are only just beginning, however. “We Won’t Want For Love” employs female lead vocals in a way completely different from how female voices were used on Decemberists albums past. Whereas the voices on tracks such as “Yankee Bayonet” from The Crane Wife were intentionally child-like and basic, Lavender Diamond's Becky Stark isn’t holding back at all on “We Won’t Want for Love.” While still retaining the femininity and sweetness common of Decemberists leading ladies, Stark employs a full vocal range and has no problem carrying the track without extensive help from Meloy or back-up vocalists. Meloy only enters the track as a far-off echo, foreshadowing the couple’s later misfortune. The best thing about her very tangible performance in terms of the concept album is the distinctness of her voice leads you to feel as if she is really a character you connect with, just as if the album were a live musical. “Hazards of Love 2, Wager All” is a centerpiece for Meloy’s style, harkening back to the romance, beauty and hopefulness of earlier Castaways and Cutouts. The emotion packed into his “I’d wager all” lends much to the development of his character, who we know is going to indeed fear nothing in his quest to protect his Margaret.

“Isn’t it a Lovely Night,” with its saccharine sweetness and almost silly sentiment seems to serve mostly as a juxtaposition of the later power and chaos of the coming second act. (Though I will take a minute to geek out over a lyric. Margaret praises the fireflies lighting their moonlight getaway... we are in Siberia. How many fireflies could there be in Siberia??) One of the best transitions in indie rock has got to come between “Lovely Night” and “The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid.” The flowery, lilting melody of the former becomes suddenly sinister, transposed into a minor-key harpsichord solo of doom. Our fawn-fellow is in trouble now; pleading with his witch-queen mother to be freed to be with Margaret very ‘royally’ pisses her off. The “Repaid” half of this track really shows us what we’re dealing with in the queen. Meloy has written her as an Angry Metal Mama, which, when sung by My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden, is incredibly awesome. Her vocals could not be farther from Margaret’s; all the sweet girlishness is replaced with powerhouse badassery, bringing us a crashing close to the first act.

“The Rake’s Song” is the first single from Hazards. Its contagious rhythm guitar line is just as menacing as the Rake himself, a child-murdering scoundrel who goes into cahoots with the Queen. This song, as mentioned before, is meant as a single, but it isn’t clear if the subject matter or lyrics will make any sense on the radio, or if it will just leave those who don’t own the album puzzled and wondering if Colin Meloy might need some counseling. However, in terms of Hazards, “The Rake’s Song” is the centerpiece, strong musically and story-wise. The Rake soon kidnaps Margaret of his own accord in a reprise of “The Bower Scene,” but the Queen helps him to cross the Annan River in thanks for his intention to ‘defile’ Margaret (nice lady.) Margaret’s panicked lover in “Annan Water” is played brilliantly by Meloy’s vocals, and the folk elements more common to The Decemberists are placed directly against the metal of the previous track, another example of the skillful manner in which Meloy distinguishes between characters in listeners minds without visual representation.

As our hero rushes to save Margaret from the clutches of the Rake, he is bought some time by the ghosts of the rake’s murdered children. “The Hazards of Love #3, Revenge!” is probably the creepiest Decemberists song to date, another way of saying the ‘one of the coolest.’ A sneaky children’s choir performs the dead children, who seek revenge on their father by sinking the Queen’s ship, drowning the Rake, the Queen and her fawn-son. Margaret survives to be rescued by her true love, but, in true Decemberists fashion, they are still doomed. The lover promised the river that if he was able to rescue Margaret, it could have his life in return. Not the best forward-thinker, he. Though somewhat predictable to Decemberists fans, (13 other lovers have died at Meloy’s pen stroke in previous albums) album-closer “The Hazards of Love #4, The Drowned” is by far the most emotional of all previous Decemberists tragedies. I have listened to this album about 6 or 7 times now, and this song has yet to fail to jerk a tear, a reaction that the story of a CD has never before garnered. Margaret and her love are married on the sinking ship even as the rapids crash around them. If you are young and in love, make sure Colin Meloy never writes a song about you.

Hazards of Love can be considered a showcase for every trick The Decemberists has as a band. Meloy’s lyrics and vocals are more emotive than ever, the music arrangement is innovative and exciting, and the raw talent of all the band members and guest vocalists are captured in Margaret’s story. The most critical thing to be said about Hazards is it is truly exclusively a concept album. It won’t make sense on shuffle or playlists, this can be considered to be a single 59-minute song. But with a story as compelling and masterfully told as that of Margaret, the Fawn, the Rake and the Queen, the time investment will surely gladly be made by fans new and old.

1 comment:

  1. Strangeness, I pulled up your blog as I was watching The Decemberists interview on The Colbert Report (that is to say, right now). Woah, amirite?

    Great review, as per usual.