The Decemberists

the_Decemberists-the Hazards_of_LoveThe Hazards of Love
The Decemberists
Capitol Records

The nation’s most preciously anachronistic songwriter–one who fancies himself as somehow part of the Victorian era, the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy has been occasionally compared to Charles Dickens. But Meloy may have more in common with William Makepeace Thackeray, who is probably best known for his novel “Vanity Fair;” although it could be argued that the characters who populate Meloy’s various songs would seem to have something of latter-day Victorian Stephen Crane in them as well, with perhaps a touch of the Bronte sisters thrown in. Whatever he is, Colin Meloy is not from the here and now.

Meloy thrives on the literary. His songs are chock full of curious words and oblique references that the average Joe would have no idea of their meaning. Meloy lives in his own world. The five albums (and four EPs- one of them, “Always The Bridesmaid” put out over the course of three separate records) that the Decemberists have released in the past six years have established them as one of the most unusual bands of this Pop music era. They have their forebears, certainly, but they stand apart from all other bands- for reasons that have been well spelled out by others in the recent past.

With “The Hazards of Love” Meloy and cohorts have created a “rock opera.” Perhaps to head off immediate criticism, Meloy calls it a “folk opera.” For rock operas (as well as “concept albums”) have a somewhat dotty history all their own. It is acknowledged that the Beatles’ 1967 release “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was the first “concept album,” although it could be said that there was no concept to that album- beyond a few sound effects. After that, the Who are mentioned with “Tommy,” from 1969. That “rock opera” was actually preceded by “SF Sorrow” by The Pretty Things in late 1968. Pink Floyd toyed with several different concept album forms, ultimately culminating with “The Wall” in 1979.

But probably the true antecedents to “Hazards of Love,” besides the work of members of the British traditional folk revival of the ‘60s and ‘70s- such as Anne Briggs (think Sandy Denny of Fairport Convention and Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span), who inspired the title of this opus, as well as Nic Jones of the ‘60s Celt trad band Halliard and the godmother of all Brit trad folksingers, Shirley Collins, are a series of albums by Jethro Tull: “Thick As A Brick,” (1972) “A Passion Play,” (1973) the second half of “Minstrel In The Gallery:” (1975) called “Baker Street Muse” and “Songs From The Wood” (1977). In many ways, Colin Meloy has much in common, with Tull leader, Ian Anderson. Both are extremely literary. Both are somewhat pretentious and unyielding in their approach to songwriting. “Hazards of Love” has much in common with “Thick As A Brick” and “A Passion Play,” sharing some similar instrumental choices as well as a few coincidental interludes.

While not the Decemberists’ first concept album (the 2005 EP “The Tain” was the first attempt and “Crane Wife,” from 2006, was a modest follow up to that mode), it is certainly their most ambitious work and their best realized–while not, perhaps, the most accessible of their albums. Stylistically, the band wanders much farther afield.

The story, somewhat ornate and drawn-out–like an Arthur Rackham illustration–surrounds the adventures of young Margaret, a rustic country girl. She is deeply charmed by William, who lives in a magical forest. He first comes to her in the form of a white wounded fawn. Margaret attempts to heal the fawn, whereby it is transformed into William. So, as these things go, it is not long before the couple fall in love, and Margaret becomes pregnant.

This situation incurs the wrath of William’s mother, the cruel Queen of the wildwood taiga (it would take too long to explain the meaning of that word), who will allow William only one last night with his love. To make certain of this, the Queen enlists the services of the Rake–a terrible fellow, who murdered his infant children after his wife had died a miserable death in childbirth. The Rake kidnaps Margaret. At this point, William sets out and eventually successfully rescues his ladylove. And they live happily ever after as rocks in a river. The plot somewhat resembles any of several Grimms Fairy Tales, as well as a couple of Shakespearian plays–Midsummer Nights Dream and As You Like It come to mind.

Musically, while still folky and loaded with acoustic guitars, the band display a decided prog-rocky bent, where one would find more “experimental” interludes, with Meloy and lead guitarist Chris Funk punctuating with more intense guitar colorations; while Jenny Conlee’s organ work often seems very reminiscent of Jethro Tull’s John Evan on “Thick As A Brick.”

And while Meloy assumes the voice of both William and the Rake–as well as that of a sort of musical narrator–for the first time, other singers play significant roles in the proceedings. Becky Stark of Lavendar Diamond assumes the vocal role of Margaret, while Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond portrays the Queen. Robyn Hitchcock and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James make singularly brief appearances. Rebecca Gates of the Spinanes is rumored to be in the mix somewhere–apparently in the closing chorus with James–but it sounds like name-dropping to me. A string section also appears occasionally.

The album begins with Jenny Conlee‘s “Prelude,” a stately canonical organ piece, which consists of a minute and a half long pedal tone, before moving evocatively in an orchestral direction, buffered by a string quartet. This fades into the first chapter of the title song, which is repeated in various forms throughout the album. The subtitle “The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle The Thistles Undone,” gives a true indication of Meloy’s preoccupation with words–sometimes to the point of distraction.

But the song sets the scene. William, the transformed wounded fawn, et cetera. A blossoming love between William and Margaret, as “fifteen lithesome maidens lay along in their bower.” A gentle acoustic background consisting of acoustic guitar and what sounds like an autoharp are supplemented by Nate Query’s evocative upright bass and Conlee’s restrained Wurlie electric piano and shadowy, low-end synth figures.

With “A Bower Scene,” it becomes apparent within the story arc that our heroine, Margaret, is with child. Musically, the cut is as electrically metal as the Decemberists have ever been–with Chris Funk’s two-note guitar figure and a positively robust break– which, the second time around, melds into the Tull-ian march of “Won’t Want For Love (Margaret In The Taiga)” and with Funk providing a very nicely articulated alteration of his original two-note guitar theme. Here, the beautiful, winsome voice of Becky Stark enters the vocal picture–her soft phrasing a decided departure from Colin Meloy’s nasally discourses.

“The Hazards Of Love (Wager All) is vaguely reminiscent of “The Crane Wife” in its composition, and is a transitional piece within the story line, indicating the heroically undying love William feels for Margaret. “And we’ll lie ‘til the corncrake crows,” is a line that only Colin Meloy could get away with singing. Like two notched sticks being rubbed together. “Crex, crex.”

Segue into the short instrumental piece, “The Queen’s Approach,” where a sound like a banjo makes its presence briefly known and into “Isn’t It A Lovely Night,” perhaps the most beautiful little song of the set. Over Meloy’s flat-picked acoustic guitar lines and Jenny Conlee’s provincial accordion, Becky Stark positively thrushes as a lulling lovely, lilting nightingale–her voice perfectly matched to the charming little tune. A pedal guitar whispered waltz at the end is a tender and lovingly infused moment.

William confronts his mother the Queen in “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid.,” where she proceeds to guilt trip the bejesus out of the poor love-besotted lad. Finally they come to agreement. William can have one last night of bliss with his damsel fair, but by morning he will have to turn back into a white fawn, or at least succumb to his mother’s maternal demands, deserting Margaret, possibly forever. Kind of a misguided swap in my book, but who am I to judge? This is a fairytale, after all.

Conlee’s roiling harpsichord patch arpeggio modulates into an intensely emotional section, where William bares his soul to his mother (SharaWorden, a vocal dead ringer for Sandy Denny and Maddy Prior). As the song transitions into its second half “Repaid,” the band takes off into another plodding prog-rock discursion of the highest order with twin electric guitar motifs between Meloy and Funk, along the lines of the ‘70s Celtic rock band, Horslips, with maybe a soupcon of Gentle Giant thrown in (and a piece of Dire Straits‘ “Money For Nothing” lopped on too) over John Moen‘s insistent, slamming drums. Worden’s husky dusky voice is well suited to her role, with bluesy undertones and a dark undercurrent flowing just beneath her delivery.

The instrumental “An Interlude” features Meloy on acoustic guitar, Robyn Hitchcock floating in the background on electric guitar, with Chris Funk on bouzouki. A pastoral pastiche. Over a familiar G-Em acoustic guitar riff, Meloy takes the vocal as the villain in “The Rake’s Song.” The rake in question seems to find great satisfaction in the death of his wife delivering his fourth child, “ugly Myfanwy,” with no feelings of regret. Ah, the fatal flaw!

“The Abduction of Margaret,” wherein the rapacious Rake makes off with our heroine, recycles the arrangement–two note riff and vocal melody of “A Bower Scene.” Meanwhile, “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing” reveals the Queen’s true being, bred of wind and rain and sunshine with all the vicissitudes and random venomous compassion of a tree, a snake, or Nature herself. It is here that William’s fawnish shape-shifting history is divulged. And it is here, where her directive to the Rake to despoil poor Margaret is made patently obvious. You don’t cross this Queen. Nuh-uh! The Queen giveth and the Queen taketh away.

William, not one to back down from a challenge, confronts and cajoles the river, which separates him from his true love on “Annan Water.” A jangling acoustic background- comprised of acoustic guitar, mandolin, autoharp, hurdy-gurdy and hammer dulcimer lend the song a decidedly folkish feel not unlike Led Zeppelin’s “Black Mountain Side (which was loosely inspired by Anne Briggs’ “Blackwaterside,” incidently- or Burt Jansch‘s interpretation of her version, to be exact).

The Rake has his way with Margaret in “Margaret In Captivity,” as our heroine pleads with the wind to beckon William to save her. The Rake assures her this is impossible. A jangly 12-string acoustic guitar riff representing the Rake is balanced by the intense electric guitar crush of Margaret’s plaintive pleas. The string quartet returns at the end to lend destitute emotion to her furtive cries.

Reworking Conlee’s harpsichord riff from “The Wanting Comes In Waves” the electrified band hits heavy as suddenly the sweet voices of the Rake’s dead children come to haunt him in a gentle chorus. Uh-oh, the hazards of love. That electrified theme returns with the reprise of “The Wanting Comes In Waves” a dashing heroic piece. William is one motivated white fawn. Rest assured of that.

Finally William and Margaret are re-united though–as in James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”–the lovers become as inseparable stones in the Annan Water and drown, peacefully, in love. Those anticipating a happy ending to this tale will be saddened and uplifted by this final twist.

“The Hazards of Love” stands as a peculiar artifact, alike nothing else released in decades. While the conceits here are irrepressible, so is the artistry, which matches its author’s ambitions. The Decemberists distinguish themselves as a band who are just now coming into their own full voice, their own true sound.

One big relief on this album is the fact that Colin Meloy has pretty much ditched most of his various vocal affectations, which in the past put some people off (mainly me). Nearly gone is the Cockney Mockney, including an array of speech impediments, tics and tacs that need not be reiterated here, because, for the most part, they have vanished. Huzzah! Huzzah I say.

For folks who like their pop works short and sweet: songs three-minutes long and out, this album will be a colossal bore. But for those who appreciate the Decemberists own special anachronistic style, there is much in this, their finest album yet, to recommend here. This album is a true work of art and is artfully assembled by real artists