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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