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The Decemberists' delight with a
modern rock opera

The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love
(Capitol Records)
4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Aug. 18, 2009
The Decemberists

Review by Tony Bonyata

I have to admit that when I first heard The Decemberists' sprawling and epic fifth full-length release The Hazards of Love, I wasn't nearly as impressed with it as I was with their earlier work. After both repeat listenings and digging into the story deeper (a dark and bizarre tale that rivals some of the best rock opera and concept album storylines in history, including Pete Townshend's Tommy and Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway) the album began to unfold and build into something quite magnificent... even intoxicating. Truth be told, when they recently performed the album in its entirety at Lollopalooza last weekend in Chicago [see the live review elsewhere in this edition] the whole story and musical piece came into even greater focus.

The story tells the tale of Margaret (vocals by Becky Stark of the folk-pop quartet Lavender Diamond) who falls in love with a shape-shifting forest beast named William (vocals by Decemberists' frontman Colin Meloy, who also sings the part of the evil Rake). Additional vocals for the role of the jealous Forest Queen are delivered by Shara Worden - aka My Brightest Diamond, while Robyn Hitchcock and My Morning Jacket's Jim James also turn in other bit vocal roles.

The dark and complex narrative unfolds around a blend of early '60s British folk (Meloy cites Anne Briggs, Shirley Collins and Nic Jones as the main inspiration for the record), along with heavy metal dirges and intricate '70s prog-rock excesses (think Yes and King Crimson trying their hand at Supertramp-inspired pop-rock). On paper it all comes off a bit too pretentious (then again, what prog-rock doesn't?), aurally it takes on a beautiful life of its own. Gentle acoustic-kissed folk numbers ("Prelude," "An Interlude," "The Queen's Approach" and "Margaret In Captivity") wistfully flirt with troglodyte death-metal riffs ("A Bower Scene" and "The Queen's Rebuke," where Worden's commanding voice of the Forest Queen practically steals the whole show). And like any good Decemberists' single, "The Rake Song" disguises a tale of dread and horror (in this case, where the Rake murders his three young children to live "easy and free" without burden) in an upbeat pop number. And for good measure they even incorporate a children's choir (a la Pink Floyd's "Another Brick In The Wall - Part 2" from their own 1979 concept album The Wall) on their number "The Hazards of Love 3(Revenge!)."

A concept album this far out really shouldn't work in this day and age, but Meloy (indie-rock's consummate story-teller) and his mini chamber-pop orchestra (The Decemberists) deliver a daring, demanding effort to rival the most popular rock operas of the past. Forget about just downloading a song or two from iTunes, this is one of those rare albums that needs to be experienced from start to finish to get the full effect.

Related articles:

The Decemberists (Lollapalooza 2009) - Concert review - Chicago, IL Aug. 2009
The Decemberists / Blind Pilot - Concert review - Milwaukee, WI - May 2009
Interview with Colin Meloy - Apr. 2007
The Decemberists / My Brightest Diamond - Concert review - Milwaukee, WI - Apr. 2007
CMJ Music Marathon (The Decemberists) - Concert review - New York, NY - Oct. 2006
The Decemberists - The Crane's Wife - CD review
The Decemberists - Her Majesty - CD review

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