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The Decemberists

The Hazards of Love

Rating: 5.0

Label: Capitol Records

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Massive in scope and steadfast in focus, The Hazards of Love is not only the finest record of The Decemberists’ already-impressive catalog, but is also a crowning achievement in a market flooded with concept albums. It is a dense, challenging record, not intended for casual background listening; it demands full attention and requires the listener to invest in its 58 minutes every time. Its 17 tracks span The Decemberists’ ever-evolving fascination with prog rock, folk traditions and storytelling, while Colin Meloy’s lyrics-from-antiquity are more kitschy than ever. Shifting between jaunty accordions, moaning banjos, and all-out cock rock guitar riffs, the album never once dulls, constantly catapulting forward in its fabled anthems.

Hazards opens with a three-minute prelude. A dark organ rolls through minor chords, preparing the listener for the demented story to come. Meloy introduces himself in following track “The Hazards of Love 1(The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)” as William, a shape-shifting forest creature enamored with his true love, Margaret (later voiced by Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark). The song touches on a similar feel as The Decemberists’ “Island” opener “Come and See,” but the similarities quickly dissipate as the album barrels into “A Bower Scene.” From there on out, the album is a free-for all, brandishing huge guitars and tearing through riffs straight from the 1980s death-metal playbook. It’s when Meloy and guitarist Chris Funk allow the distortion to temporarily subside that some of Hazards‘ most memorable tracks emerge. “The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)” bursts with gorgeous cinematic sentimentality, while “Isn’t it a Lovely Night” is a boozy, bastard of a waltz that sounds like a stitched-together composite of every character Helena Bonham Carter has ever played.

No Decemberists story is complete without a villain though, and Meloy fleshes out his most lecherous vagabond in the jaw-dropping lyrics of “The Rake Song.” The protagonist finds the burdens of family life unbearable and does away with them one by one: “Charlotte I buried after feeding her foxglove / Dawn was easy she was drowned in the bath/ Isaiah fought but was easier bested/ Burned his body for incurring my wrath.” Not even the Shankhill Butchers were that ruthless.

The Decemberists employ a series of reprises throughout the album’s second half, broken up by the warm hymn “Annan Water” and the retaliation of the rake’s children in “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!).” My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden steals the show in “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” and “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing,” utilizing her husky delivery to command the voice of an envious and vengeful forest queen. Every Decemberist is given space to bring out their full talents, most notably Nate Query’s upright bass in “Hazards of Love 1,” Jenny Conlee’s ominous harpsichord in “The Wanting Comes in Waves” and John Moen’s thunderous percussion in “The Rake’s Song.”

The final climax, “The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise),” is a welcome look back at the cataclysmic album. The track sounds more vital in its incarnation, beginning from a high crest and crashing down for a full minute-and-a-half before washing into the final track, the acoustic lament “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned).”

And with that, from start to finish, The Hazards of Love is a record that never once stumbles. The album refuses to pander to mainstream audiences, which speaks both to the integrity of The Decemberists, but especially to that of Capitol Records, for releasing an album with conceivably no singles. The strong tracks transition naturally, making Hazards less a collection of songs and more an ongoing epic. While the album could go either way in terms of sales, it undeniably stands as a rare achievement of individuality for a major label band, and more importantly, as a landmark of creativity in a genre often accused of being mined dry.

by Brian Loeper

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