The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love

Like its predecessor, 2006’s The Crane Wife, The Hazards of Love is more than just a collection of songs. In its entirety, this album, inspired by a rare Ann Briggs EP of the same name, is an eccentric rock-opera. Or in this case, a folk-rock-opera: a 17-track journey of songs which fluidly weave through a mystical, whimsical and unconventional love story.

Unlike The Crane Wife, which took its narrative from a Japanese fable, The Hazards of Love is a story of The Decemberists’ mainstay Colin Meloy’s own devising. For those who don’t have the patience to sit down with the album sleeve and figure out the narrative themselves (and with the lyrics in such miniscule font, who could blame you?), here’s the gist. A maiden, Margaret, falls pregnant to a shape-shifter from the forest, William. However, their love is unwittingly challenged by a jealous and psychotic queen and a despicable and sociopathic murderer, –  “The Rake’. Love, hate and revenge run throughout this classic and Shakespearean-esque story before this tragic fairytale builds to a sad and beautiful finish.

The Decemberists’ distinctive indie-folk sound is the perfect musical language with which to chronicle Margaret and William’s tale. Harmonies, dramatic melodies and rich wordsmithing (“the prettiest whistles won’t wrestle the thistles under”) canvas the album in songs such as the gentle lilting Isn’t It A Lovely Night (featuring the dulcet vocals of Becky Stark ), while the rollicking rhythms of Annan Water, with its full-bodied acoustic guitar and Meloy’s character-filled voice, is textbook Decemberists.

The songs on Hazards are more varied in style than previous albums, but they are some of Meloy’s most solid compositions to date. Melding his modern-edge traditional sound with rock-crafted precision, the record transitions seamlessly between indie-folk and progressive rock, incorporating among its full-bodied instrumentation (mandolins, orchestral arrangements and a children’s choir among them) more heavy riffing, power chords and denser textures.

Although its form and firm structure intends this record to be heard as a whole, it’s a tribute to Meloy’s craft that many of its songs also work as standalone tracks. The Bower Scene, with its tinkling piano riff and insistent chorus, contains hints of Death Cab for Cutie, while The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid, which hooks in just before the album’s mid-point, is one of Hazard’s true standouts. A duet/conversation between William and the queen, the six-minute-plus track alternates between a sonorous pop verse – with Meloy imploring “and the wanting comes in waves” over an ascending ethereal vocal chorus – and a ‘70s-style riff-heavy second verse in the section Repaid, complemented with Shara Worder’s vocals.

The Hazards of Love is a beautiful and mature album; one which instantly impresses continues to warm with each listen. Deliberately unconventional without being pretentious, the fifth album from The Decemberists is arguably their finest their date, securing their reputation as one of modern music’s most intelligent and interesting artists.

The Hazards Of Love is out now on Capitol/EMI.