For their fifth full-length recording, Portland, Oregon’s The Decemberists have made a sprawling epic of a record, a grand concept album the likes of which hasn’t been seen much in 30 years or more: The Hazards of Love.
Frontman, lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy became enamored of enigmatic English folksinger Anne Briggs’s 1966 EP The Hazards of Love and, since that EP didn’t actually have a song by that title, set out to write one. That one song turned into an album, inspired by Meloy’s longtime love for English folk rock.
This album tells, in its own winding way, the story of Margaret and her doomed love affair with a shape-shifting lover, William, whose mother is the forest queen. There’s also a subplot involving a character known only as The Rake, who does away with his children after their mother dies in childbirth.
In addition to the core Decemberists members — Meloy, Chris Funk on guitars and banjo, Jenny Conlee on keyboards, Nate Query on bass and John Moen on drums — this project features Becky Stark as Margaret, Shara Worden as the queen, Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Robyn Hitchcock on guitars, and others on orchestra and chorus.
It is a wildly entertaining album, especially for anyone who remembers the glory days of English prog and folk-rock. The influences are legion and obvious, everything from Pentangle and Fairport Convention to Jethro Tull and early Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. It’s a gapless album, with one song leading directly into the next. But even if it weren’t, it would still be all too easy to listen to it straight through in one sitting, as I’ve done at least twice now.
The first thing I noticed was the language. Meloy is a nerdy wordsmith, and it shows up in almost every song. “The prettiest whistles won’t wrestle the thistles undone,” is the central line in the first of three iterations of the title song, in which the tale’s narrative theme is introduced. “‘Thou unconsolable daughter,’ said the sister / ‘When wilt thou trouble the water in the cistern? / And what irascible blackguard is the father?'” That is one of two verses in the brief “A Bower Scene.” “And we’ll lie ’til the corncrake crows / Bereft the weight of our summer clothes,” Meloy sings in “The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All).”
The dreadfully dark murder ballad “The Rake’s Song” is chock-a-block with delicious lines like “What can one do when one is a widower / shamefully saddled with three little pests / All that I wanted was the freedom of a new life / So my burden I began to divest.” That one is balanced by the soaring, cathartic “The Wanting Comes in Waves,” with its crashing instrumentation and pealing vocal chorus. “Limber limbs akimbo / rest ’til rubbing raw,” Meloy sings as William in “Margaret in Captivity.”
The next most obvious feature is Chris Funk’s incredible heavy riffage. The driving 16th notes of “A Bower Song” crescendo to fat Black Sabbath-like ponderous chords between the verses, and give way to the bluesy licks of “Won’t Want For Love.” After the theme of “The Wanting Comes in Waves” is introduced by Conlee on harpisichord, it builds in another crescendo to the chorus, which is surrounded by vocal chorus and Hammond B-3, which then give way to heavily distorted Floydian riffs for the middle section, which is sung by the queen — Shara Worden sounds a little like Grace Slick in her younger days, wailing out “This is how I am repaid!”
It’s not all prog-rock bombast, though. There’s banjo, pedal steel and accordion in the wistful waltz of “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?” sung in fragile voice by Stark; spooky organ and classical guitar arpeggios in “Margaret in Captivity”; and driving almost bluegrass rhythms from mandolin and accordion in “Annan Water.”
Most of all, The Hazards of Love is a wonderfully organic whole as an album. The songs lead into one another, themes — both melodic and lyrical — are repeated and embellished on from song to song, and it all tells a story laden with magic, tragedy and obsession. I didn’t think anyone still made albums like this. I would think it would be the type of album that would strongly appeal to many many Green Man readers.