Monday, April 13, 2009

Won’t Want for Rock: A Review of the Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love [2009]

I decided to share my recent review of my favourite band's latest release, soon to be published in the Davidson Reader.

In the middle of the Decemberists’ fourth full-length release, The Hazards of Love, the song “An Interlude” provides one minute and forty seconds of quiet, instrumental relief. It’s a necessary pause in an album that barely lets up on pounding guitars and intense vocals. With The Hazards of Love, the Decemberists leave their well-trodden, comfortable territory of sprightly indie pop and enter the darker rock land that they explored with their 2004 EP, The Tain.
Like The Tain, The Hazards of Love is a tightly-wound concept album, centered around the much-wronged character Margaret. Listeners familiar with lead singer Colin Meloy’s distinctive elocution may find the presence of two female guest singers, Becky Stark as Margaret and Shara Worden (from My Brightest Diamond) as the evil queen, jarring at first. However, these female vocals mesh neatly with Colin’s and provide a rich avenue for the complex and morbid lyrics.
“Prelude” opens the album with nearly a full minute of silence; a deep resonance gradually awakens with a threatening atmosphere reminiscent of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Soon the track cuts seamlessly into “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone)” as Margaret’s tale of woe begins. There are three encores of the main “The Hazards of Love” theme as the album continues.
The advance single for the album was “The Rake’s Song,” about a murderous young father, easily the creepiest song on The Hazards of Love. His victims make a re-appearance in “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge)” as a bone-chilling children’s chorus join the already expanded ranks of vocalists. The album’s longest track is “The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid,” but this is no “California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade.” Instead, Colin and Shara take turns in a duet of debts and desire.
Still, The Hazards of Love is not a release to be sampled in morsels; it is intended to be a complete experience for listening from beginning to end. Tellingly, the Decemberists played the entirety of the album during their concert at SXSW; unlike most concerts where artists play a mix of new songs from the latest release and some old favorites, this one featured solely the tracklisting straight from the album. Only after an encore did Colin play two older songs. Just as that audience in the concert experienced, taking in the music during one fell swoop is the best way to appreciate The Hazards of Love.


Andrew said...

Hey Caroline, it's Andrew Conner. How are you doing? I've enjoyed your blog; your European escapades look very fun.

Quick note on this album: Prelude actually doesn't start with silence. Turn it up, it's actually a minute of a single bass note (that gets quite annoying if you turned the volume up a good amount).

Caroline said...

Ah, I stand corrected! I will have to crank the iBook volume and experience this single note for myself.