The Hazards of Love

March 26, 2009

by Amaris Bailey

Indie folk artists The Decemberists have long established themselves on the musical landscape as masters of melodious story-telling and instrumental experimentation.

In their previous four albums, the ballad-driven quintet has entertained their loyal following with tracks such as “Leslie Ann Levine”, “Crane Wife”, “The Bagman’s Gambit” and others, all of which tell individual stories.

In following this pattern, it can only be expected that The Decemberists would build up to a full-length concept album – a feat they have accomplished with their latest release, The Hazards of Love.

The album subtly knits together several tales. There is a young woman who wanders into the woods and tries to help an ailing fawn. There is a shape-shifting drifter who takes advantage of the kindness of a stranger, a queen – a savior of sorts – who will risk no harm to her acolyte, a rakish rogue who bites off more than he can chew and shamelessly gets rid of the consequences, and a haunting of children, desperate for a father’s love.

Front man Colin Meloy and company are joined on this album by Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond. Worden lends her sultry, jazz-inspired voice to the character of the queen and easily convinces listeners of her power, while Stark’s tenuous, tinkling vocals softly voice the character of Margaret – the heroine of the tale.

“The Hazards of Love” wastes no time in weaving its web of mystery and myth and immediately plunges listeners into a wilderness scene echoing with flora, fauna and fable in the first title track, “Hazards of Love 1.” Here, the heroine goes “riding out in white and green and grey/Past the pale of Arthur’s Wall where she was want to stray/And there she came upon a white and wounded fawn.”

The most striking tracks on the album include “The Rake’s Song,” which chronicles a life of wedded bliss deteriorated into listless longing, tragic death and graphic murder, and “The Hazards of Love 3” in which the murderer is haunted by a chorus of dead children.

Each recorded track fluently segues into the next and the four title tracks sew the baleful yarn together effortlessly.

Unlike in most of their albums, Meloy eschews a certain amount of instrumental detail for this record in favor of lyrical cogency: the music itself takes a back seat to the story.

But though more attention is paid to the story’s unfolding, not too much is lost in the Decemberists ready arsenal of unique instrumentation.

“The Queen’s Approach” begins with the bands signature banjo plucks and “The Wanting Comes in Waves” has a distinctive harpsichord melody that dates the piece with a subtle, smoky elegance.

“The Wanting Comes in Waves” is probably the best illustration of the story-like narrative of the rest of the record with its back-and-forth between the queen and her captive.

The shape-shifter pleads with his queen, “Grant me freedom to enjoy this night/And I’ll return to you at break of light.” The queen, who claims to have rescued the shape-shifter from the horrors of mankind sings, “From ore I labored you/from cancer I cradled you/And now/This is how I am repaid.”

Throughout these varying tales, listeners are warned of the hazards of love. But it is those very hazards that combine the stories and piece together a coherent puzzle of gained and lost love, treachery, sacrifice, debts incurred and repaid, kidnapping and everything but a fairy-tale ending.

Though it takes a couple of listen-throughs to get the whole story, The Decemberists deftly manage to deliver another knockout to leave listeners reeling in their melody-driven literary wake.