Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Album Review: The Decemberists-The Hazards Of Love

In February of 2007, I was introduced to The Decemberists. I was not pleased with what I heard. It was a classic case of "sure, the music is pleasant enough, but what's with that guy's voice? It sounds like he plugs his nose while singing." The band was introduced to me by one of my best friends, someone who has had pretty parallel music tastes with mine for as long as I can remember. He urged me to keep listening, that I'd understand eventually.

After a while, my opinion of the band softened slightly. I really began to enjoy the sounds of their music (especially the quieter, acoustic centered songs), and the voice of the singer started to grow on me. But what really hooked me was when I started listening to the lyrics. The singer (one Colin Meloy), told a story within every song. Whether the story was light hearted (as in "The Sporting Life") or more serious ("Shankill Butchers"), it was told in a completely literate and creative way. Given Meloy's propensity for novel-like wordplay, and the fact that that bands' last album, The Crane Wife, contained two epic, 10+ minute songs, the next natural step was a concept album. Enter The Hazards Of Love.

One trend I've noticed over the last few years is the popularity of the "loose" concept album. Cursive released a couple in The Ugly Organ and Happy Hollow, and Green Day released their much hyped American Idiot album. While there were similar concepts between certain songs on these albums, the term "loose" to describe these concepts tying together is appropriate. Not so with The Hazards Of Love. Songs bleed together, with no space in between tracks. Essentially, it's an hour long song.

I'm not even going to begin to tell the story, so I'll simply let the bands' media release do that talking: "The Hazards of Love tells the tale of Margaret (Voiced by Lavender Diamond's Becky Stark), a woman from a city near the forest, and her lover William (voiced by Meloy), a shape-shifting forest dweller. Margaret discovers she is pregnant, and sets off into the forest to find William. Their love is threatened by the jealous forest queen (Voiced by My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden), and a murdering knave. The range of sounds reflects the characters' arcs and emotions as well as the pacing of the story line, from the tender sing-song 'Isn't It a Lovely Night?' to the thunderous rhythm of 'The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing.'"

This description must be taken with a grain of salt, mostly because it's obviously going to skimp on details, written to entice potential listeners. Yes, the story is completely cohesive. Yes, it essentially follows that basic story line. But these facts force the listener to adjust his/her expectations for what is about to be heard prior to listening to this album. Sure, concept albums have been around for a long while (since at least the mid to late sixties). But only a handful of them could be considered possible, or even relevant, to modern day rock music listeners. Thus, it's possible that, for many, this could be their first exposure to a full on, bona fide rock opera. At first, it's a little unsettling. After repeated listens, it begins to grow on you.

Given the nature of this album, it's a given that standout tracks will be hard to find. Even so, there are some to be found, such as the afformentioned "Isn't It a Lovely Night?", and album closer "The Drowned". Other than those standout moments, the rest of the album melts together, which is basically the purpose of making a record like this. If you're able to drop your conventions and realize that this album isn't going to follow the traditions of 99.9% of the albums out there, you might enjoy this. That is, if you can get past the singer's voice.

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