Plumbiferous Media

The Hazards of Love – The Decemberists

Mar 29th 2009
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The Hazards of Love - The DecemberistsThe Decemberists
Hazards of Love
Score: 46

The Decemberists are generally a unique and welcome addition to the indie genre. Its cacophonously large warehouse of various instruments, unlikely but welcome in a rock setting, often provides for exceedingly interesting sounds, especially since the musicians certainly know how to play them well. This expectation of greatness, especially given the band’s last few productions, The Crane Wife, and Always the Bridesmaid: A Singles Series, only serves to cast Hazards of Love in an even more negative light than the one in which it puts itself. Hazards of Love is certainly not a strong album, and is, for a variety of reasons, quite possibly the worst Decemberists production to date.

The Decemberists always seems to function best when using multiple polyphonous, counterpuntal, and harmonic lines, simply because it sounds impressive, and the band can actually manage to pull it off well. One has to wonder then, why many tracks start even to approach a White Stripes-like quality: simple, half-melodic lines, often in unison, with very simple drum-beats to back them up; it certainly doesn’t work well (see “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)”). Another interestingly large misstep overly prevalent in The Hazards of Love is the overuse of distortion effects, especially the buzzing, quite annoying distortion of the guitar in “The Rake’s Song.” Now, all this is not to say that The Decemberists ought to stick to complex, acoustic partwriting; they’ve pulled off some quite simple music very well in the past. However, on The Hazards of Love, tracks that do follow the more standard Decemberists formula, such as “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone),” just happen to also be the strongest tracks of the album.

Colin Meloy’s unique vocals haven’t lost any of their appeal on Hazards of Love, even if other aspects of the album are significantly lacking. Meloy tells the convoluted story of Hazards as well as could be expected, and his multi-faceted, melodic voice is almost certainly the best part of the album. However, on Hazards of Love, The Decemberists has made the dubious choice to employ two guest singers (Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond), each of whom plays one of the characters in the twisted epic that is Hazards of Love.

While Worden’s contribution in “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” and “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing” make for well-told pieces of the tale, most of Stark’s appearances are frankly irritating, most notably “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?” where Stark’s rather sharp voice leaves the track rather unappealing. But even worse than the guest singers is the inclusion of a childrens’ choir on “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!),” which is utterly musically unwarranted and ruins a promising track. Frankly, Hazards of Love would have been much better served with only Meloy’s vocals.

As Hazards of Love is first and foremost a concept album, the lyrics are intended to form an epic tale which persists through the entire album. While such storytelling is certainly not new to The Decemberists, who have proven themselves adept at carrying out even the most obscure Victorian-inspired storylines, this is their first attempt at such a large, all-encompassing story.

Sadly, it does not come together as well as we might have hoped. The lack of hooks (except, perhaps, for the recurrent line “the hazards of love”) cripples the album’s hopes of notability by individual tracks. However, at the same time, and while not single-worthy, tracks such as “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)” help to weave the tale well. Nonetheless, weaker tracks such as “Isn’t It a Lovely Night” and “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)” overwhelm those efforts and confuse the story. In fact, one of the best tracks in terms of setting the mood of the story is “An Interlude” which has no lyrics whatsoever. While the lyrics overall aren’t quite weak, they certainly don’t match up to the standards of The Decemberists’ earlier albums.

Overall, The Hazards of Love simply does not come together as an album. While some of the experimentation found in The Hazards of Love does work quite well (the lack of track breaks throughout the album was pulled off very successfully), the vast majority of the concept-work failed quite miserably. It was clear that the guest vocalists did not know how to fit in with the unique sound of The Decemberists, and The Decemberists were unwilling or unable to adapt their style to work with the guests. The band members also do not seem to be anything approximating experts when it comes to distortion and other effects, and The Decemberists has also made some clearly careless errors, such as taking what was shaping up to be one of the few great tracks on the album, and then cutting the rest out, choosing instead to replace it with a children’s choir accompanied by an increasingly dissonant mess of sound.

While Hazards of Love is certainly an interesting attempt at a concept album, it’s not an especially successful attempt. The combination of a convoluted story, mediocre guest vocalists, and the perplexing inclusion of an entire childrens’ choir leaves us wondering what the ultimate goal of Hazards of Love actually was – as it certainly doesn’t seem to have been the creation of a coherent album. Nevertheless, on Hazards, The Decemberists has managed to produce a few good tracks. They’re simply swallowed up by the perplexing mess that is the rest of the album.

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