Tuesday, March 17, 2009

And we will lie like river stones

The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists
A Live-Blogged Review

The new album from The Decemberists was released (digitally) today.  Pitchfork describes it thusly:
The album began when Meloy—long fascinated by the British folk revival of the 1960s—found a copy of revered vocalist Anne Briggs's 1966 EP, titled The Hazards of Love. Since there was no actual song with the album's title, he set out to write one, but was soon immersed in something much larger.
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."

So a rock opera.  As everyone knows, I love this band, and I am very excited about the new records (if a little nervous about all the reviews of the album that mention 70s metal).  This should be an interesting, so I thought I would write my initial thoughts as I give it my first listen.

1. Prelude -- As the album starts, I feel like my computer is about to blow up or that someone is drilling a mine deep below my apartment.  The low bass drone has me excited and scared.  The organ has started and foretells much darkness ahead.

2. Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone) -- Colin has started singing about his true love over a beautiful guitar part.  This actually reminds me of Robyn Hitchcock quite a bit.  This song is nice, and pretty standard Decemberists fare so far.

3. A Bower Scene -- The next track starts much more aggressively with a pretty heavy strum.  One minute in and the Decemberists have never had such heavy guitars.  But it works well here.

4. Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga) -- So I guess Margaret will take over now, and the guitar has turned a bit bluesy.  Becky Stark is on the lead vocals here, and her lovely voice provides a nice contrast to the rather harsh (but cool) music.  William (Colin) is now singing to Margaret, wondering where she is.  I wonder if there will be a movie.

5. Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All) -- Colin is back, and from the outset, this song is a highlight.  We've slowed down, as "William" sings about the new feelings he's experiencing.  Yeah, this song is quite beautiful.

6. The Queen’s Approach -- This little 30 second interlude changes the pace quickly, before . . . 

7.  Isn't It a Lovely Night? -- The accordian signals the beginning of something new here, and Margaret seems to be telling William about the baby on the way.  This is a rompish little love ditty.

8. The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid -- I really like the background "ooh ooh ooh" here.  And now we have some major electric guitar riffs.  William seems to be addressing his mother, who I think is the Queen?  Anyway, Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond lends her powerful voice to the song, singing the Queen's response, and she sounds great with the fairly hard-rocking music.  This song is definitely unlike anything else.  "Consider it your debt repaid."  

9. An Interlude -- Just what it sounds like, and lovely.

10. The Rake’s Song -- This, the first single, has been out for a while, and now in the context of the album, the song works much better.  I love the pounding percussion parts that insert themselves.  The Rake recounts the various people he has killed, and somehow,he does not sound so bad . . . 

11. The Abduction of Margaret -- More heavy guitar chords make me nervous for poor Margaret . . . 

12. The Queen’s Rebuke / The Crossing -- And now the Queen is back, and the guitar wails behind Shara's howls.  (All of this is in a good way.)  Is that a  wah-wah pedal I hear?  Holy guitar.  I'm a little scared right now, though this organ is pretty funky (and prog-tastic!)

13. Annan Water -- Back to an acoustic strum . . . as Colin-as-William heads off to rescue Margaret.  We've returned to a bit more familiar territory here for the band.  Now halfway through, the song is getting more and more complex, though still familiar.  I like this one a lot. 

14. Margaret in Captivity -- "I have snipped your wingspan, my precious captive swan."  I assume this is the Rake singing.  I appreciate the dichotomy between the melodic music and the dark lyrics.  Margaret sings here too, calling out to William, but the Rake tries to discourages her.  This song seems the most like an actual "musical" with the dialogue throughout.

15. Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!) -- Man this album has a lot of different and interesting instruments.  And now a children's choir sings about the Hazards of Love, and the music halfway through has taken on a surreal and haunting squeak.  I don't feel very positive about what may be in store for William and Margaret . . . 

16. The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise) -- Just what it sounds like, but with more strings.

17. Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned) -- This final song starts of slow and melancholy.  William and Margaret appear to be on a sinking ship.  So I guess he has rescued her, only to be doomed at sea.  
Tell me now, tell me this, a forest's son, a river's daughter,
A willow on the Will-o' wisp, our ghost will wander all the water.
So let's be married here today, these rushing waves to bear our witness.
And we will lie like river stones, rolling only where it takes us.
This song is gorgeous.  Heartbreaking, melodic, stirring.  A wonderful way to end this most peculiar of albums.

Obviously I need to listen to The Hazards of Love many more times, but my initial impression is that The Decemberists has gone out on a brilliant limb, taking some very interesting risks, and created a new, though very different, masterpiece.  No other band would try this, and no other band could pull it off so well.


At 12:24 PM, Blogger undulatingorb posited...

Damn straight! You should come see them in St. Louis with us!!


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