Having just finished my tenth listen through of this album, I feel I finally have a good enough sense of the album to write a proper review. Beginning as singer Colin Meloy's attempt to compose a song to go along with Anne Briggs' EP, The Hazards of Love, it soon grew into something much, much more. What we are given is what can best be described as a "folk-rock opera." It is a massive undertaking to take on such a project, but I had faith that if any band could do it successfully, it would be the Decemberists.
The end result is truly the band's masterpiece. The album clocks in at just under an hour with 17 tracks. Each song flows seamlessly into the other to create an epic fantasy tale of two lovers. Margaret is a girl from a city near the forest. Discovering she is pregnant, she travels to said forest in search of her lover William, a shape-shifting being of the woods. However, all is not well as William's mother, the Queen of the forest, becomes enraged with jealousy over her son's happiness. William pledges his existence to his mother if she allows him to be with Margaret for the night and she accepts. As the two lovers are united, Margaret is taken by a villain called The Rake. He is introduced as a despicable man who murdered his three children upon the death of his wife and forth born. The Queen is pleased with his actions and assists The Rake in his crossing of the river. William is fraught as he attempts to rescue his love, but is confronted with the perils of the river. He then pledges his life to the river upon his return, despite that he has previously done so to his mother. As Margaret is imprisoned, The Rake is visited by the spirits of his children and revenge is extracted. This allows William and Margaret to flee. However, upon their return to the river, William's boat is destroyed and he must now give himself to the river. The two lovers agree to be "wed" so that in death, their spirits will roam the river together. They share one final kiss as the wave that takes them crashes down.
It doesn't matter how many times it is said because it can never truly reinforce how true of a statement it is, but Colin Meloy is one of the finest songwriters of recent times. He is a brilliant story-teller and a master of composition. Never before has it shined as brightly as it does on this album. The first thing that came to mind when reading these lyrics was how I was reminded of poets such as William Butler Yeats, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and T.S. Eliot. Meloy's usage of imagery, alliteration and various other poetic devices throughout rings of Romantic poetry. One of my absolute favorite lines comes from "The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)," "And we’ll lie to the corn-crazed crows, and reft the weight of our summer clothes."
The music is flawless. It perfectly sets the mood and tone for each character and the situation, ranging from happy, elated riffs that carry the more cheerful and loving parts, to darker and minor scales for the sorrowful parts or more evil characters. Familiar riffs are repeated to remind the listener of previous settings and feelings brought on by earlier songs. The hook for "The Wanting Comes in Waves" shows up several times, though the song is only titled twice on the record and it serves perfectly to enforce William's desire to save his lover.
Another thing that is done well is that there are no exorbitantly long songs on this album. Their previous album, The Crane Wife, had a minor flaw of having songs over 10 minutes long with the same title and a very loose connection. With The Hazards of Love, each song works flawlessly with one another. The connection is very clear and the music is all-around beautiful.
One thing that surprised me was that Jenny had no singing parts at all on this album. I usually love her voice and her harmonies. However, the women brought in to cover these roles are amazingly talented. The role of Margaret is played by Becky Stark of the Lavender Diamonds and the Queen is voiced by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond. This was a smart move on Meloy's part, because each female character is different enough that to have the same voice for both would lead to confusion. However, Meloy serves as the voice for the Narrator, William, and The Rake. The confusion there is minimal because he does such an excellent job setting the mood with the music and the lyrics. The same can be said very easily about the differences between Margaret and the Queen's parts, but I do enjoy the separate roles. Meloy's voice has never been stronger, especially on songs such as "The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)," "Annan Water" and "The Wanting Comes in Waves." The beautiful harmonies that he and Jenny have been known to produce show up here again, but only with Stark and Meloy carrying them. "Isn't It a Lovely Night?" is a perfect example of this.
When I heard "The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)" being sung by a children's choir, i was extremely hesitant to accept it at first. Upon realizing what the song was about, I knew that there was no other way to do that song. So many bands use these kids in songs to reinforce a sense of innocence and more often than not, it comes out a failure. Again, Colin Meloy has used these kids in a way that isn't the least bit clichéd or unnecessary. It is so haunting to hear the ghosts children sing of revenge against their father, The Rake.
The Decemberists have done what few bands can ever hope to accomplish. This album isn't simply a collection of songs. It demonstrates to the world what can be done with music. The Hazards of Love is more of a collection of elegant poetry set to music. The way the lyrics and music play off each other is so inspiring. What you are given isn't simply a group of songs on the same record. While each song stands on its own brilliance, the album as a while begs to be listened to all at once. Truly, the best way to experience it is to sit down with the lyrics and let the album play through. Follow the characters, get lost in the imagery created by brilliant lines and allow your emotions to fluctuate with the music. Some might say an album suffers by having no singles, but only if the collection as a whole fails to deliver something more. You are doing yourself and the album a disservice by simply listening to the songs out of order or just one every now and then. This is not that kind of record. For a band to even create something that functions as a whole so well that even the parts can be enjoyed almost as much is quite a feat.
Everyone should do themselves a favor and pick up this album as soon as possible. As far as the medium, I recommend getting it on vinyl. I was worried at first because it is hard to break the flow of the album. However, this interaction with the album is something that is all a part of the experience. By changing the sides of the records, you become a part of the album and that's what it wants. You should be able to interact with it and want to hear what's next. Without even hearing any more new releases for the rest of the year, I could easily declare this to be my album of the year for 2009. Unless something comes along that is just as spectacular as this, which I would love to see, but seriously doubt will happen, I will stand unwavering in my opinion of this record. I haven't been as moved by a piece of music as I have by this album in a long, long time. My only fear is that everything the Decemberists do from now on won't compare to what has been done here. At the same time, with what they have done with The Hazards of Love, I can only wait with baited breath for what they have in store next.