The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love

Let’s start off this review with a few introductions. The Decemberists are:
Colin Meloy: Singer / Songwriter
Chris Funk: Guitar / multi instrumentalist
Jenny Conlee: Hammond Organ / Accordion / Piano / Keyboards
Nate Query: Bass
John Moen: Drums

The Decemberists formed in 2000 in Portland, Oregon and “The Hazards of Love” is their fifth full length studio album. It is a dark musical fairytale that like a classic Pink Floyd album must be taken as a whole, not a random collection of songs. The story unfolds throughout the 17 connected tracks. I shall attempt to retell the narrative whilst describing each song in turn, but first, allow me to introduce you to the characters in our little story:

William: The Hero, who takes the form of a faun by day
Margaret: The Heroine
The Queen: William’s Mother, The Queen of the Forest
The Rake: The child killing villain of the tale

1. Prelude
A low morose hum gradually increases pitch and is eventually joined by a series of organ chords and choral backing vocals, very evocative of Floyd’s “A Saucerful of Secrets”. I can see why the Decemberists opted to play a recording of “Echoes” in its entirety at the start of the recent gigs premiering this album.

2. The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle The Thistle’s Undone)
Acoustic guitars join in as the prelude fades and the story begins with the narrator describing how Margaret rides out into the forest and after straying somewhat she meets
“a white and wounded faun”
in the woods, she helps the faun and stays with him till later when
“The beast began to change”
into William, its true form. William takes Margret to the Taiga deeper in the forest and makes love to her. The track is a fairly gentle folk affair with intricate guitar work that reminded me of a late 60’s Kaleidoscope (US) track. A distant shout heralds the start of the next track

3. A Bower Scene
The music speeds up with a ticking beat and running electric guitar as Margaret returns home and
“when young Margaret’s waistline grew wider, the fruit of her amorous entwine inside her”
she returns to the Taiga to seek out William.

4. Won’t Want For Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
A more bluesy and rockier guitar kicks in as the thumping beat continues assisted with a stomping piano refrain and Margaret sings
“columbine, columbine, please alert this love of mine, let him know his Margaret comes along”
in search of more love as she sings out
“Despite this swelling in my belly it won’t quell my want for love”

5. The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)
We return to the slower folkier sound of the next instalment of the title track as William finds Margaret and sings
“to lay you down in clover bed, the stars a roof above our heads”
as they make love again throughout the night until the corncrake crows.

6. The Queen’s Approach
A short “Bert Jansch” style acoustic intermission heralds the approach of William’s mother, the Queen of the forest.

7. Isn’t It A Lovely Night?
An acoustic guitar and accordion (whose player sound like they may well be wearing lederhosen) provide a backdrop for Margaret to recount their lovely night together:
“And here we made a bed of boughs, And thistle down, That we had found, To lay upon the dewy ground”
The upright bass joins in for the last verse and a slide guitar adds a more country and western feel to this track.

8. The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid
A harpsichord accompanies William as he hears the Queen approach and declares:
“Mother I can hear your foot-fall now, Soft disturbance in the dead-fall how, it proceeds you like a black smoke pall”
The beat picks up and we enter an “Arcade Fire” style piece as William anticipates his mothers rage and pleads that the
“wanting comes in waves”
A heavier rockier change introduces the Queen who screams
“This is how I am repaid”
at William after all she has done for him. We return to the harpsichord / Arcade Fire style for William to offer a deal to the Queen.
“Grant me freedom to enjoy this night and I'll return to you at break of light”
There’s a final return to the Queen’s rockier sound which allows her to accept his proposition as she screams
“Consider it your debt repaid”

9. An Interlude
We then fade into an acoustic instrumental intermission that would fit rather nicely at the end of a lengthy Mike Oldfield composition.

10. The Rake’s Song
If there is to be a single from the album, I propose this dark sinister tale giving us the back story of the villain of the piece. The song reminds me a little of the 3rd Pixies album with its simple electric riff. The harrowing tale explains how the Rake was married at 21 and considered himself cursed as
“her womb starts spilling out babies”
The Rake has a total of four children whom he describes thus:
“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”
The Rake is then able to persue his freedom by killing his remaining children in a various macabre ways.

11. The Abduction of Margaret
We return to the main plot and some classic rock as the arbours provide cover for the Rake to sneak up and
“Our heroine here falls prey to her abductor”

12. The Queen’s Rebuke / The Crossing
A slow heavy Black Sabbath like beat with squealing guitars allows the Queen to fill in the back story of William’s upbringing and how she found him abandoned as a child and turned him into a faun by day. Jon Lord styled keyboards and guitar solos give a classic Deep Purple style sound as the Queen aides the Rake by allowing him to cross the river Annan with Margaret, out of William’s reach:
“But the river is deep to the bends and the water is wild. I will fly you to the far side”

13. Annan Water
The pace of the music quickens with rapid strumming guitars as William pursues Margaret and the Rake and reaches the shores of Annan Water where the Queen helped the Rake flee. Unable to cross the turbulent waters, but undeterred by the Queens warnings that he will drown, he prays to the river spirit and makes another deal to the accompaniment of Church organ.
“So calm your waves and slow your churn. You may have my precious bones on my, on my return”

14. Margaret in Captivity
The Rake taunts Margaret telling her that her calls cannot be heard, but Margaret continues to call out to William to rescue her.

15. The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)
The ghosts of the Rakes children return for their revenge to the familiar opening refrain of “The Wanting Comes in Waves” . The children all sing
“The Hazards of Love”
in unison along with a painfully screeching cello sounding like finger nails down a blackboard. The children take their revenge on their loathsome father.

16. The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise)
A final triumphant reprise of this song to reunite William and Margaret.

17. The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)
The slow and sad conclusion to the tale features a beautiful slide guitar that could have come from a classic Eagles hit. As their boat begins to sink William promises Margaret that they will be together as ghosts as they take their wedding vows and sink beneath the waves.
“Oh Margaret the lapping waves are licking quietly at our ankles another bow another breath this brilliant chill's come for the shackle. With this long last rush of air we speak our vows and sorry whispers, when the waves came crashing down, he closed his eyes and softly kissed her.”

In 1969 there was “Tommy”, in 1979 there was the “The Wall”, now in 2009 we finally have “The Hazards of Love”. I guess it could be considered a tad pretentious but I have a huge hard-on for this album. Superb stuff. Go buy it.


Rob said...

Nice review... Since I first heard Hazards it struck me as sort of Floydian. A lot of critics have been dismissive of the album and missing its real beauty. Going to see them Friday; can't wait.

Crispian Jago said...

Thanks for your kind comment Rob.
Nice to hear from someone else who really appreciates this album. As the major reviews have only been lukewarm, I feel quite evangelical about promoting this album. Enjoy the gig on Friday. I’ll keep an eye out for them playing here in the UK.