A while back, I came across an interesting-looking CD in the library called The Hazards of Love by the Decemberists. I took it out for a weeks on spec, fell in love with it and bought my own copy as soon as possible after I had to take it back. I’ve also got three of their other albums now (Picaresque, The Crane Wife and The King Is Dead) with the rest on my wish-list. They’re all excellent, but The Hazards of Love remains my favourite.
According to the band’s account, it originated when their main singer and writer, Colin Meloy, became intrigued by an album of the same name by 60s British folksinger Anne Briggs. Meloy loved the album, but decided it had only one fault – there was no title track, which he regarded as a waste of a great title. He set out to write one, and ended up with a sixty-minute concept album instead.
Now, I know there are people who run screaming when “concept album” is mentioned. There are certainly plenty of bad, self-indulgent examples to put them off, but I personally consider a well-crafted concept album the best possible use of the format. The Hazards of Love is up with the best.
It tells a strange tale, rooted in folklore, of wild forests, animals that are really enchanted humans, gods of wood and water, faithful lovers and dastardly villains. The story’s told in a sequence of songs and instrumentals that veer between folk rock, prog rock and hard rock, with plenty of variety to move between the dreaminess of young love and the hard edge of murder and kidnap.
Not that the story progresses in a linear, logical manner. The songs form vignettes of key moments in the tale, with the listener left to construct a plot around them, although plenty of clues are given. When the main villain, known as the Rake, makes his appearance, for instance, we might be forgiven for wondering exactly what this has to do with what’s gone before, and I’m still not entirely sure what happens to him in the end. He does play a vital part in the story, though, and more than makes up for any vagueness by the quality of the songs relating to him.
There are four characters in the song, along with parts that are told by a neutral narrator. The two females, Margaret and the Queen, are represented by guest vocalists – Becky Stark and Shara Worden respectively – but Colin Meloy does both males – William and the Rake – as well as the narration. This could be seen as dramatically a weakness, although it’s never really a weakness to have plenty of Meloy’s vocals, but it’s very understandable. He wrote the thing and, while William has a lot more of the album, there’s no way anyone who’s written The Rake’s Song is going to give it to someone else without it being torn out his dead, bloody hand.
Musically, although the Decemberists are based in Portland, Oregon, much of the obvious influence seems to be British, ranging from Steeleye Span to The Who (the Queen’s song Repaid reminds me a little of The Acid Queen from Tommy) and the band tackles the large range of styles effortlessly, from the brooding folk-prog of Annan Water, where the backing includes a hurdy-gurdy, to the crashing hard rock of The Rake’s Song, perhaps the most individually memorable number. In spite of the British flavour, though, drawing on much of the kind of music I love, my absolute favourite musical moment on the album is when the wail of a pedal steel guitar breaks into the finale. It shows a perfect musical judgement that never fails throughout the hour of the CD’s running-time.
You may have gathered by now that I love The Hazards of Love. It’s a personal taste, of course, but I feel this could very well be the best album of the third millennium so far. Well, perhaps with the exception of Dylan’s Modern Times, but that’s another story. If what I’ve said here suggests the kind of thing you might like, do yourself a favour and get it.