CD Review – The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love (Rough Trade, 2009)

It’s fair to say that here at The Indie Credential, we like The Decemberists a littleok, a lot.

The Hazards Of Love

One of the things which appeals so very much is their penchant for storytelling, something that on The Crane Wife (and The Tain) they began to spread across song cycles – rather than just songs. So, when they announced that the new album, Hazards of Love, was going to be a concept album, it really didn’t come as much of a surprise. They’ve been building towards this for years. Lead singer/songwriter Colin Meloy is, for all intents and purposes, a writer who happens to put his stories into song, rather than a musician who happens to write lyrics. I think he’d probably be rather pleased if I described him as a modern-day minstrel – creating and reworking folk tales, allegories and morality tales.

Hazards of Love is quite an achievement. It manages to be a completely over-the-top ’70’s-prog-style concept album, a morality tale and a proper melodrama all rolled into roughly 60 minutes of song.  By virtue of being a musical the production has to have coherent songs and songs need things like choruses and repetition so precious time is taken being, well, songlike and the plot and the characters suffer; but because it’s a story it has to have a plot so the songs lose out on being really coherent, stand-alone songs because they have to drive the plot forward and tie together in the way that the songs on a pop record simply don’t. I hate musicals. I don’t hate this, but the result leaves me feeling slighly unfulfilled and wishing for a proper record, with, well, pop songs.

Despite this failure, which is not the fault of The Decemberists’ songwriting but a shortcoming of the format they’ve chosen, The Hazards of Love is a very enjoyable listen. There’s some great hooks and catchy bits and while I have very little time for guest singer Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and her rather shrill singing voice, the gothic, menacing vocals of My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden are among the highlights.

What has me turning round in circles, and somewhat let down, then, is the plot itself – which really doesn’t go very far or say very much. Just to explain (and this is a spoiler so if you really don’t want to know the story, stop reading here):

William, our hero, was rescued as a baby by the menacing forest Queen who turns him into a fawn by day and a human at night. He gets himself caught in the underbrush where Margaret, the “heroine” stumbles across him. She goes to help him and while she’s untangling his hind legs he turns into a human. They fall in love and consumate the relationship. Margaret gets pregnant out of wedlock – and since her true love is part animal nobody knows who he is but she’s unrepentant. They want to be together so William begs The Queen to allow him his relationship by evening if he promises to return to the forest by day. They’re happy for a while. Then The Rake, a man whose wife died giving birth to his fourth child and who murdered his other three kids cause he didn’t like being a widower, kidnaps Margaret and takes her away to have his way with her.  The Queen is thrilled and helps The Rake get to safety with his captive by enabling him to cross the deep and rapid river – thinking William will be left to her in the forest. Instead, William makes a pact with the river to let him across to rescue her – saying the river can have him on the way back once she’s safe. As he makes his way to Margaret, the ghosts of The Rake’s murdered children swoop in for revenge, Margaret is freed and united with William and the two of them plunge into the river where they’re swept away to their death – together, still declaring their love for each other.

It’s over the top, it’s outrageous and it’s entertaining. The tunes and the use of instruments provide an ambiance to the tale – The Queen and The Rake get crazy heavy metal guitars while William’s parts are soaring folk melodies of standard Decemberists fare. The standout theme becomes “The Wanting Comes in Waves,” a refrain which repeats itself throughout – foreshadowing the ending when William and Margaret are swept away by the waves to their watery ending.

However, digging further into the story the holes appear. For starters, it seems Colin Meloy has plundered his own back catalogue for ideas. The fawn becoming human is reminiscent of the Crane Wife, herself. The kidnap (and the surrounding crazy guitars) are reminiscent of “The Island.” The Rake could be that same villain at a later date. The ending is akin to “We Both Go Down Together.”

Next, what exactly are “The Hazards of Love”? If this tale is correct the hazards are 1) rescuing random fawns can lead to falling in love with supernatural creatures; 2) falling in love with supernatural creatures might land you with a rather unpleasant mother-in-law; 3) pregnancy out of wedlock can cause fate to deal you an ugly hand – kidnap and drowning; 4) falling in love with a woman that your crazy mother doesn’t like can cause her to side with your wife’s kidnapper and let you drown. I’m not sure where these “hazards” arise – nobody gets a broken heart, nobody gets broken or damaged as a direct result of their emotions – only as a result of their massive character flaws and the cack-handed way they handle the situation at hand.

William is weak-willed, following Margaret blindly, rushing to his death – and he’s not the one who rescues her. And then there’s the women… Now in a morality tale (in particular in a Victorian morality tale), the heroine is actually a heroine. She makes a mistake, learns from it, redeems herself and has a happy ending – see the blind woman who gets her sight back at the end of Mary Barton. Or, perhaps, her mistake is so fatal that even if she learns from it, she dies anyway. In this instance, however, nobody learns anything so the story doesn’t actually achieve anything. In fact, the characters in this tale remind me a bit of Heathcliff and Kathy in Wuthering Heights – another haunting tale – but one in which the lovers got what they deserved because of their own inability to handle their emotions and act like decent human beings.

The second problem is the way the women are characterised – they are victims who do nothing but pop out babies and die (The Rake’s wife), they are flighty, selfish and demanding – and pop out babies (Margaret), or they are venomous and vengeful (The Queen).

Margaret, for her part, rescues the fawn, and for this she is a heroine – but this simple act of kindness is one any feeling person would offer. Rather, once she’s fallen in love and fallen pregnant she refuses to name the father and instead, retreats to the forest unrepentant and without a care, selfishly singing “And I may swoon from all this swelling / But I won’t want for love.” When she is kidnapped and in mortal danger, even knowing her true love’s promise to The Queen, she begs for rescue by him – without fear for danger to him.

The Queen for her part is wonderfully evil and menacing – but her maternal feelings are also of jealousy, anger and vengeance. If she cannot have the son she rescued as a baby all to herself, she would rather see him dead. She helps The Rake across the river, thanking him for “removing this temptation” – and sadly she’s right – Margaret is bad news. She’s misjudged her son’s feelings for the temptress, but does not come to his rescue as he drowns.

And this is where my brain really started churning… The format of the tale means the characters were always going to be half-formed and Colin Meloy would be stretched to deal properly with complex plot strands in the space of an album. But looking backwards across The Decemberists back catalogue it seems he’s struggled to write female characters from day one.

With the possible exception of Valencia, his Romeo and Juliet-style heroine in “O Valencia” off The Crane Wife, his adult female characters all fall into the categories above – helpless (Leslie Anne Levine’s young mother, the female lover in “We Both Go Down Together”), evil temptress (“The Bagman’s Gambit”), flighty and weak in the face of love (the narrator’s mother in “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”) – or even the object of comedy and derision (“A Cautionary Song” – he may be tender, but he’s still mocking the fact that the recipient of the tale has a mother who’s a whore). The only real saving grace in his portrayal of women is in the recent Always the Bridesmaid songs – but even here, “Valerie Plame” is remembered by a former lover (and is possibly the same villainess from “The Bagman’s Gambit”) and the other women, while sympathetic, are a little pathetic. “Raincoat Song” describes a Bridget Jones-style character. “Days of Elaine” is about a middle-aged woman stuck in her glory days of youth.

Ultimately, if you don’t mind a bit of prog rock melodrama, then The Hazards of Love is an intriguing, complex and entertaining listen but it is not without its faults – partially as a result of the limitations of trying to combine a story and a pop record into the same project, but partially because Meloy’s storytelling still needs development and because he needs to learn to flesh out his female characters into the three dimensional and sympathetic portraits he paints of his male characters.

The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistle Undone)

The Decemberists – Margaret In Captivity

The Decemberists – A Cautionary Song

6 Responses to “CD Review – The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love (Rough Trade, 2009)”

  • Jeff Says:

    Very solid review! I just linked to it, keep up the good work – http://www.popsense.com/2009/03/decemberists-hazards-of-love-review.html

  • Cameron Says:

    Are you suggesting that real women have three-dimensional personalities and good for more than popping out babies?

    Because you would be wrong.

    Dead wrong.

  • mbt women Says:

    This system gives equal weight to each of the 5 categories with each category having from 0 to 20. Now we can find a number of clones claiming to offer best tablets in India and that also at a much lower price. 4% of the data expectations. We recall the formative event of the Exodus in our prayers three times a day because it is the origin of an intergenerational message that resonates within us even now.

  • Williams Buys Says:

    Hello, Neat post. There is a problem with your web site in internet explorer, could test this¡K IE nonetheless is the marketplace chief and a good section of other people will omit your great writing due to this problem.

  • enzacta Says:

    Most protein shakes are loaded with sugar, fat, and other ingredients that aren’t even necessary for the body.
    Most of them are full of sugar and processed flour.
    It helps increase immunity to aid in fighting colds.

  • ??????????????balac Says:

    Yes! Finally someone writes about free iq test with results.

Leave a Reply