Monday, March 30, 2009

Review: The Hazards of Love by the Decemberists

On some level, Decemberists fans always assumed it would come to this.  Original cast recording-style musical numbers were a hallmark of theirs as early as album two ("Shanty for the Arethusa," "The Chimbley Sweep"), and the band's obvious fascination with prog went from nascent on 2004's The Tain to full blown on the three-part fifteen minute eponymous suite on 2006's The Crane Wife.  Honestly, a seventeen track rock opera about a shapeshifting forest dweller trying to rescue his true love from a villain called the Rake was pretty much an inevitability, and so it is that we have arrived at The Hazards of Love.

The Decemberists almost pull it off, too.  Chief songwriter Colin Meloy is on comfortable and well-tread ground here, simply stretching his penchant for musical storytelling from song to full album.  The labyrinthine plot takes numerous twists, and the music generally oscillates between the mildly pleasant and the demandingly compelling.  Very few songs exist well enough on their own, but they are not without a certain cumulative power, a raw force that pulls you through and occasionally rises to heady peaks with standout tracks.  Almost any band could call this an unqualified success.

And yet it isn't just any band, it's the Decemberists.  Unfortunate expectations, perhaps, but once a band releases an album as perfect as Picaresque there's simply no dialing back to the realm where "mildly pleasant" is good enough.

The first sign that all is not right on The Hazards of Love is the baffling absence of that much beloved chestnut of musicals everywhere: the big opening number.  The Decemberists have belted those out of the park before--"The Infanta," anyone?--and as such it's borderline unforgivable that the album whimpers in with a tonal drone that initially made me wonder if my CD was broken.  From there the album limps into a couple of undercooked songs that are pleasant enough but never really build into anything on their own.  It's a rock opera, fine, not every track is supposed to be a scorcher, but it isn't until ten minutes in that you get the first real hummable melody via the beautiful "Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)."  It's a stunning song, yes, but it only illustrates that the first couple songs might as well be called "PLACEHOLDER MELODY: WRITE ROUSING OPENER SOON."

Other highlights manage to be decent additions to the Decemberists canon, but few could survive the Pepsi Challenge against virtually anything else they've recorded in the past five years.  "The Rake Song" is a faux-heavy ode to infanticide that would be disturbing if it weren't so funny (regarding his progeny's birth: "first came Eziah with his crinkled little fingers/ then came Charlotte and that wretched girl Dawn/ ugly Myfanwy died on delivery/ mercifully taking her mother along, alright!"), but ultimately it sounds a bit like an inspired idea in search of a memorable chorus.  "The Wanting Comes In Waves" is fairly standout-ish and yet it is punctuated with digressions (both musical and plot-wise) that render the song conflicted at best.  Meloy is telling a story, I know, but is it really too much to ask for a tune that hangs together from start to finish?

"But it's not about the individual songs!" I hear the hardcore shout!  "This is a concept rock opera, not a greatest hits collection!"

Except nobody wanted this all to work more than me.  I love this kind of ridiculous high-concept shit.  Prog-heavy opuses complete with interludes, four-part movements, and a dense backstory detailed in the booklet via eyeball-shattering microscopic font?  Sign me up; I'm one of the few who still consider Mars Volta albums to be release day purchases, after all.  But The Hazards of Love is caught in an odd rock opera middle ground where the songs aren't quite solid enough to survive on their own and yet the music doesn't form a swelling sonic journey to accompany the plot.  It's a bizarre memento of a stage musical that doesn't exist (and probably wouldn't work very well if it did).

But it also must be stressed that The Hazards of Love--the album--does ultimately work, and it will almost certainly be embraced by a certain subset of their fanbase as The Decemberist's underrated masterpiece.  Swap in a couple songs on the caliber of "We Both Go Down Together" and I might be inclined to agree, but prog epics are all about the balance between build up and payoff and The Hazards of Love rings up a little skimpy on the latter.  It's a success, yeah, but only if you manage to ignore past Decemberists discs to keep from being reminded of what could have been.

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