Monday, April 06, 2009

Unnatural Hazards

And so from a contentious post about whether music can be heard in a critical vacuum to a belated review of the opinion splitting suite of a new album from one of STN's favourite bands. Actually, we do just throw this together, but it's nice sometimes for thoughts and ideas to accumulate such.

Except when details eked out of The Decemberists' The Hazards Of Love project we couldn't help but be worried about the outcome. For one thing, it's an hour long concept album. Concept albums on their own are not necessarily a bad thing, but there was something about the backstory to this one that didn't quite ring true. After all, Colin Meloy's lyrical gifts have been rooted in reality rather than fantasy on their previous proper albums. Whether king, sailor, athlete or concubine, Meloy tends towards grounding his subjects and their travails largely within life rather than fantasy. On the occasions that he has branched out for a sustained story arc, The Tain and parts of The Crane Wife, it's been based on a solid grounding of a story already in the public domain. This, on the other hand, is an intricately plotted and threaded story cycle about "a woman named Margaret who is ravaged by a shape-shifting animal; her lover, William; a forest queen; and a cold-blooded, lascivious rake", based on an imaginary Anne Briggs song. For another, Meloy had started talking about his admiration for stoner/sludge metal, something about which we feel the almost exact opposite. At least when John Darnielle writes about his genuine love of death metal we know he knows he doesn't want to directly chase down that line of music because he feels it's anathema to how he approaches writing and the way he plays.

Actually, rather than concept album, even if it's all of a piece - there's very little in the way of tracks you could extract from it and hold up as representative, although there's a few you could pick out for 7" duty - it's more rock-opera. There's an orchestral prelude, extended suites, repeated motifs and a consistent tragic fable at its centre. The Decemberists have been threatening to do something of this range for years, and that they got a major label to finance it and it's become their first Billboard top 20 album to boot... well, it gives you fresh hope, both in the form and in the fact people are willing to listen to a near hour long stretch of arching music.

And what an arch it makes. The Hazards Of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle The Thistles Undone) - yeah, Meloy's in full lexicographal stretch - uncoils its folk-rock approach as gradually as it sets out the mise-en-scène, only to shift into A Bower Scene's alternately chugging and stoner riffs with a garnish of Wish You Were Here Pink Floyd. Then Won't Want For Love takes up the cudgels of both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Peter Gabriel Genesis with Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) as the ingenue lost in the woods and you're completely lost in a very particular, very targeted type of 70s retro in which Pentangle and the Incredible String Band held sway. It takes great arrangement pains to make clear that it's not really a folk album, but while there's little direct sustained OTT bombast there's more than a few occasions (The Hazards Of Love 2) where it all takes on too heavy a load, taking its cue from the musical theatre Meloy originally envisaged this as. And the children's choir on The Hazards Of Love 3, while making sense to tie up one end of the story, doesn't make for that likeable a musical point.

Obviously the band are far too smart to let everything go to prog-heavy metal waste. The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid starts like classic tentative-anthemic Decemberists before Chris Funk cranks up the Led Zep blues riffs and in comes My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden coming on like Polly Harvey at her spooky as the forest queen to keep it clear from choogle hell. (She doesn't manage to repeat the trick despite an even more eerie performance on The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing, but then we never got Black Mountain) The Rake's Song is a big old riff monster but not one in that heavy sense, the single not unreasonably, and continues a grand old tradition of the band by killing off five people, four of them young children; Isn't It A Lovely Night?, another Worden/Meloy duet, is a gorgeous love ballad that turns into pedal steel and accordion country-folk halfway through, a motif returned to on the closing The Hazards Of Love 4. Annan Water's an interesting one, a folk tale in the proper sense driven by mandolins, hurdy gurdy and driving subtle percussion, the closest they've ever come to Arcade Fire's well marked territory (think Keep The Car Running) that actually doesn't do that much to directly drive the narrative on, being William's ode to a river to let him pass and save the already abducted Margaret. As such, it's the song that'd most work outside these rarefied surroundings.

So what do we think of it?





No, it's not a bad album by any means, let's get that straight from the start of the conclusion. Like The Crane Wife, it may well be an album that only makes sense given time and the consistent effort required to meet its grand follies halfway. For a continuing storyline we're not sure it really hangs together as well as it could musically with the lurches all round the folk-rock spectrum, and while Meloy's storytelling skills are obviously well developed, here with plenty of little touches and archaic wordplay to keep interest alive, actually following the story in amongst it all is another matter when it's structured as an album where removal of any one element would make it collapse. But then, where do the band go from here? Back to a proper album of individual songs would be the logical answer, except that last year's series of 7"s Always The Bridesmaid registered low on the quality control scale and while Sleepless from the Dark Was The Night compilation was a step up it was only because it sounded like an offcut from Castaways & Cutouts. As for now, The Hazards Of Love feels like an idea that hasn't, or can't, be carried through to its fullest extent but remains a fascinating excursion into wilder, newer shores for the Decemberists. Despite the surroundings they remain as they always have, beholden to nobody but themselves.

They played through the whole thing at SXSW, as captured by NPR.

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