The Hazards of Love
This is how Decemberists front man Colin Meloy described the Portland band's new record, The Hazards of Love, a few months ago: "...the tale of a woman named Margaret who is ravaged by a shape-shifting animal; her lover, William; a forest queen; and a cold-blooded, lascivious rake, who recounts with spine-tingling ease how he came to be living so easy and free."
Although eloquent and employing a masterful use of semicolons, the description gave little indication of what we were likely to hear on the follow up to 2006's groundbreaking The Crane Wife, which itself was based on a Japanese folk tale. But Hazards, which was released on Capitol records this week, is about an eighth as goofy as Meloy's description and probably about twice as heavy as anything the previously folky and often poppy band has released. The record ties 17 tracks - four of which bear the album's title - together with consistently dark themes and the familiar storytelling whimsy that has always been a Decemberists hallmark. And they do so without any shades of corniness, which isn't always easy when crafting a rock opera.
Meloy shares vocal duties with Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and Becky Stark from Lavendar Diamond, both of whom play "characters" in the story. Stark appears early on the record, leading the surging and slightly creepy "Won't Wait for Love" that bleeds into "Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)," which although weirdly haunting, is probably as close to Meloy comes to harkening back to the lighter sounds of The Crane Wife, on this album. "The Rake's Song" gives a taste of the band's rarely seen aggressive side and is a pleasant taste of the energy these tracks will bring to the band's live shows this summer.
But Hazards is best enjoyed en whole. It is, in essence, a piece of theater and there aren't many tracks that stand out on their own, yet somehow these cuts gel within the context of Meloy's greater vision. And it's a vision that it seems could only happen in the strange world of the Decemberists.