The Decemberists
The Hazards of Love
Capitol

Courtesy of Capitol

4 out of 5 stars

So The Decemberists have made a 17-track indie-opera. It’s a necessary label, but an unfortunate one — when an album is touted as any type of “opera,” it’s normally an indulgent, incoherent mess. It’s simply too difficult for most bands to strike that delicate balance between pretension, ambition and actual musical quality when making these beefed-up concept albums.

But it goes without saying that The Decemberists are not a typical band. Colin Meloy, the group’s bookish frontman, is well known for his peculiar fondness for arcane and obscure vocabulary (a sample line from 2006’s The Crane Wife: “Its contents watched by Sycorax / and Patagon in parallax”). Guitarist Chris Funk once battled Stephen Colbert in a guitar duel on live television. They’re weird dudes. Maybe that’s why they were able to turn out a rock-, indie- or whatever-opera that’s both musically and thematically compelling.

Conceptually, Hazards of Love is a sylvan fairytale describing an evil tree-queen and a fair maiden named Margaret who (I’m fairly sure) gets raped by a morphing fawn and kidnapped. Naturally, her lover seeks revenge.

Needless to say, it’s a strange album. But coming from Meloy and his merry band of troubadours, it all fits into place. The story is told not only coherently but poetically – here’s Meloy describing Margaret’s abduction: “All a’gallop with Margaret slung roof crossed withers / Having clamped her innocent fingers in fetters / This villain must calculate crossing the wild river.”

In less capable hands, an album like this could be disastrous. It’s grandiose. It’s campy. But for The Decemberists, it works. The way the album structurally mimics a real opera makes the bizarre subject matter much easier to stomach. Three different vocalists play the three lead characters. The chaste-voiced Becky Stark (from the band Lavender Diamond) is the distressed Margaret, taking up lead vocals whenever the story calls for it. My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden voices the evil queen with Disney-esque prowess. Meloy, meanwhile, is convincing as both the noble hero and the conniving evildoer in “The Rake’s Song.” Each track segues into the next, demanding the album be listened to from start to finish.

Even Wagner would be proud – leitmotifs are used masterfully throughout Hazards (for example, whenever the treacherous queen is about to sing, a brooding, distorted guitar line comes in).

Sometimes with concept albums, excessive narrative and structural concerns take top priority and the music suffers. Not here. Meloy has an almost preternatural gift for melody, routinely turning clunky, word-heavy phrases into dulcet melodic lines. “A Bower Scene” and “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing” see The Decemberists blasting off into new, distortion-and-solo territory. These harder-rock songs not only set the mood for the album’s more narratively menacing moments, but also unveil a refreshing sound for The Decemberists; more than any other time in its career, the band actually sounds like it’s rocking out and having fun.

This album was a definite risk. The Decemberists seemingly ignored commercial and credibility issues and made the ambitious, thoroughly odd record they wanted to make. And it paid off. Like all good rock-operas or concept records before it, Hazards is more than an album — it’s a theatrical, fully engaging experience.

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