Review
The Hazards of Love
The Decemberists
(Capitol)

decemberists-hazards-of-love

As this is the first CD review for the new blog, I’ve chosen something that I am absolutely gooey in the fork about. I love this album. Seriously love it. Which is odd in that I’ve never listened to the band before and only happened upon it after catching a bit of a clip of them on The Colbert Report. But I love this album. Let me count the ways.

First up, its a concept album. A concept album! It has a concept—a story—connecting all the songs, and it goes on for a whole album. Concept. Album. Yay. Is there anything daggier, this side of Kevin Rudd in shorts? Daggy in the sense that it doesn’t lend itself easily to the single-song download mentality of iTunes commodification.

The album is a throwback.

The lyrics tell a story and the music repeats and develops themes and riffs as it goes along. You really do have to listen to it as a whole. Which is not to say that there aren’t stand-alone songs that reward in their own right—as the clip below will testify—but at the end of the day, the individual songs are not the point. It’s really one big song, and to download a single track in isolation would be like falling in love with someone then cutting off their arm and taking that home to meet your parents and expecting them to understand why you love the person. Concept. Album. Trust me.

And what is the concept, I don’t hear you ask? Oh, just the usual medieval tale of debauchery and infanticide that you might expect from a bunch of guys obviously obsessed with English folk music and the bucolic fantasies that tend to drive one wing of that genre. I’m only guessing, but I reckon Dungeons and Dragons might be broken out during breaks in rehearsals, and if Colin Meloy, who sings, plays guitar and wrote nearly all the songs, hasn’t got the extended DVD versions of the Lord of the Rings movie on a shelf somewhere, I’ll eat one of my three copies of the book.

So the story is fine, rollicking even, and the lyrics are excellent all the way through. Tell me Meloy wasn’t happy when he came up with this, for instance:

Ugly Myfanwy died on delivery
Mercifully taking her mother along

But let’s talk about the music.

This is what would’ve been called a folk-rock album not so long ago. I’ve played the thing through about 200 times and each time, I hear another echo, another reference, shades of bands I associate with growing up and learning about music. The basic sounds, the mix of acoustic and electric guitars, brings to mind Jethro Tull, but not quite. There’s never really the equivalent of those Martin Barre solos, which is a not a criticism. In fact, the album lacks the sort of instrumental pyrotechnics that I’d associate with the prog rock of the 70s, though you can’t help but feel it owes something to that movement.

The opening ‘Prelude’, for instance, an instrumental organ piece that slowly fades in and then gives way to the title track, is reminiscent of any number of prog bands from back in the day. If anything, its Uriah Heep I think of, a sort of rockapes’ prog band, with all the Middle Earth overtones that fit right in on The Hazards of Love.

There’s even—mixed right back—some sound effects—village sounds, children playing, that sort of thing—that wouldn’t be out of place on Floyd’s The Wall album. In fact, the title track is run into the next track via the sound of a guy shouting, just as Floyd do on The Wall, and then later, again a la The Wall, a kids’ choir sings one of the tracks, in this case, to their murderous father, on the track ‘Hazards of Love 3 Revenge‘.

But rewind. Listen again to the way that first iteration of the title track ends. Buried in the mix are a few licks, a bit of soloing, that to my ears is the sort of jazz-inflected soloing you associate with Renbourn and Jansch in Pentangle. Beautiful stuff.

Skip ahead a few tracks to the wonderfully named ‘The Wanting Comes in Waves’ and there’s an even more unlikely influence, I reckon. Jefferson Starship. Actually, the screeching riff in the second part of the song could be from Magicians Birthday, but Shara Worden’s vocal are straight out of the Grace Slick songbook. Play this track back to back with ‘White Rabbit‘ and you’ll see what I mean. Great lyrics, great vibe, as theatrical as hell, this is my favourite track on the album and probably the one that best stands alone, the fury of a woman betrayed:

How I made you
I wrought you, I pulled you
From war I labored you
From cancer I cradled you
And now

This is how I am repaid
This is how I am repaid

After that, listen to ‘The Abduction of Margaret’ and, honestly, tell me you can’t hear early Black Sabbath in that thunderous, ponderous internal riff that breaks in after the first verse.

Having said all that, drawn all those parallels, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this is just a name-checking wankfest for the glory of bands and music past. Sure, it’s a hoot to hear something so steeped in a particular musical tradition—and maybe some other day I’ll make the case for what connects Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull, Pentangle and the others—but the album well and truly stands on its own two feet.

You don’t need to hear it the way I hear it to realise what a great album it is. There are beautiful melodies matched with careful and clever lyrics (the fourth reprise of the title track, the album closer, is simply gorgeous)…

But with this long last rush of air
Let’s speak our vows in starry whisper
And when the waves came crashing down
He closed his eyes and softly kissed her

…but there is also excellent playing, nice clean acoustic guitar licks, some lovely harmonies, inventive percussion and bass lines underpinning it all. There is depth and texture and commitment that speaks of serious musicians dedicated to doing a good job but also having a great time. This is a sui generis folk-rock album with thumping riffs and delicate finger-picking put together with care and attention and is so far my favourite album of the year.

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