Hazards of Love
When I was 16, I tried to write a rock opera. I found it inevitable: how else would a 16-year-old with nothing more than a purple Squier Stratocaster burst onto the scene with unprecedented success? With pleasant, inoffensive singer-songwriter drivel? Nay! Ambition, ingenuity, and a flare for the epic was the only way—a concept album to conquer all other concept albums. And so I conceived some naive, overtly sappy plot that, in retrospect, was doomed from the start. I vaguely recall trying to portray the act of sexual intercourse through a clarinet solo. Needless to say, the whole thing fell apart pretty quickly, and I went back to writing songs about my favorite players on the Chicago Bulls.
The lure of a gigantic, grand storytelling was too much for me, and evidently too much for Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy. Consider that the three most well-known rock operas—The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust—were not just career-altering records; they were career-altering records for stadium-filling mega-bands, as if only the mammoth rock bands could recite such equally immense tales. Then consider Meloy, who directs Decemberists shows like they’re major theatrical productions, and routinely closes his sets with a song titled “I Was Meant for the Stage,” and you’ll see why this was inevitable. The Decemberists frontman toyed with the format on their previous album, The Crane Wife, weaving a hazy plotline around several other stories. But on Hazards of Love, the group’s newest storytelling escapade, Meloy goes for the jugular: the perfect rock opera, with a continuous story, epic climaxes, and a heartbreaking conclusion. With 17 uninterrupted tracks, at least three reoccurring musical themes, two major plot twists (by my count) and a faun-like forest narrator, Hazards of Love would be a career-defining risk for any other band (for example, I couldn’t imagine Matchbox 20 releasing a concept album set in a mystical forest without being promptly dumped from its label). But for The Decemberists—everyone’s favorite Portland lit-rockers—it’s only mildly surprising; perhaps even the logical next step from The Crane Wife.
Inspired by the 60s and 70s British folk movement that share Meloy’s fascination with 17th and 18th century medieval folklore and nomenclature (if you’re not familiar with the genre’s forerunners, like Anne Briggs or Shirley Collins, think of a more serious version of “Mitch and Mickey” from “A Mighty Wind” but with more titles like “Down in Yon Forest”), Hazards of Love follows a shape-shifting forest creature (voiced by Meloy), who apparently shacked up with a maiden from the nearby city (voiced by Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark) who wandered into the forest and consequently became pregnant, a revelation that really pisses off the forest queen (voiced by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond), who always seems to have a searing acid-rock solo playing behind her. From there, I won’t give away spoilers (a first for a music review), but needless to say, pretty much everyone dies an awful and hopelessly symbolic death. Meloy may seriously hold beliefs in the inherent beauty of the star-crossed lovers and the inevitability that such a couple will die tragically, but any themes he’s trying to convey are lost in the silliness of the story, which, like most rock operas before Hazards, is difficult enough to decipher without keen observation to the lyrics sheet.
So, the premise is simply sophisticated goofiness, but the arrangements show a band’s music evolving into a full-out onslaught of prog-rock. The characters often take back seat to Chris Funk’s massive electric axe, anchoring the sludgy verses along with Jenny Conlee’s omnipresent organ/accordion/harpsichord. A wicked organ breakdown near the end of “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing” should wet the pants of any diehard Emerson, Lake and Palmer fan.
In between the prog-rock, Meloy drops country-twinged ballads that, quite frankly, sound heavily influenced by Disney animated films. "Hazards of Love 2," with lyrics like "to lay you down in a clover bed, the stars a roof above our head," could have been placed in the "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" sequence of The Lion King and no one would have batted an eye. As an accordion-laden waltz, "Isn't It a Lovely Night?" feels like an alternative track for the spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp. Assuming you don't take any of this seriously, it's undeniably fun, and the interconnectedness of the entire album feels like an old-school attempt at a massive, career-defining moment.
Ultimately, the record’s length keeps it from attaining elite status—Meloy simply doesn’t have 58 minutes worth of Grade-A material; he’s got, at best, about 40. Occasionally, the band simply plods along with the plot like a mediocre portion of an otherwise entertaining movie. Nonetheless, it’s quite the effort, a record that will not be surpassed in terms of pure, unadulterated grandeur for some time. At the very least, it’s surely something to be witnessed live in its entirety and in the presence of Meloy decked out in a full-out faun costume.