Friday, February 18, 2011

Weekly Dose of Prog: The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love

(I'm also including this article in my 'Favorite Albums' list, because well... it is)

Usually known for their folk melodies - and some great ones at that - for their 2009 release The Decemberists went all out. While still keeping true to their folk roots with The Hazards of Love, they insert much more progressive elements into the album. For long-time fans (such as myself), the addition of the progressive sound is not wholly unexpected, with previous songs branching into this genre ("The Mariner's Revenge Song" being the first to pop into my mind), it's just the scope of the progressiveness that caught me off guard. The Hazards of Love is a rock opera in any possible description (again not wholly unexpected, as The Crane Wife had some rock opera elements within, just not to this extent), with a full cast of character revolving around a diverse and evolving plot.
Even before putting this record on again, I am already struck by the memory of the opera. The lyrics of "The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid" (mostly the chorus/title line), and the repeating melody of the Queen's theme; the heavy guitars of this section are great, much heavier then anything else The Decemberists have done, and the repeating melody (whenever she makes her appearance), heard throughout the album, is what I love about progressive concept albums.

I was in a bad mood and really didn't want to write this article (I put it off til the last minute again), but by the second song - or first true song after the intro track, "Prelude" - I had a bit of a smile on my lips. I was still a bit pissed but the lulling effect of Colin Meloy's voice does wonders for my soul. Something about the folksy guitar, overlayed with his velvety voice, really reaches me. This is one of the main reasons I like The Decemberists, I believe. With any other singer, something fundamental would be missing, the bit that makes The Decemberists, The Decemberists. The Hazards of Love is my favorite release by the band, and one of my favorite albums of all time. I've heard it several times now, and it always brings about a circle of emotions from me; smiles and a bit of head bobs at the begging, goosebumps and sort of introspective at the climax, and a bit melancholy at the last song, as it all ties in together. Simply superb.

After the intro, we are introduced to the first of four songs named after the album title, this one sub-titled as "The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle The Thistles Undone." As one would expect, the themes and tunes from this song pop up from time to time as the album progresses (most notably in the songs sharing the title), this theme and the Queen's swing, heavy metal theme are two of the most memorable moments of the disc, as well as some of the most repeated. There are other tunes that appear more then once (like the guitar riffs throughout "Won't Want For Love (Margaret In The Taiga)"), but the two previous are the most pronounced.

The Queen's theme is introduces soon after, although we don't know what it is upon first listen, it's slid within "A Bower Scene," foreshadowing something dark, especially when surrounded by the light melodies of the songs directly before and after. So to a person listening for the first time, these notes mean little, but to those who know, it signifies everything, and breaching the two groups is a journey I look back at fondly.

Actually the entire first half of the album is very beautiful and soulful, aside from the occasional hint at the upcoming darkness. It's all very folk, relying heavily on Meloy's voice as well as dual female parts, as Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond, and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond (don't worry, I've never heard of them either. This all comes to a head during my favorite song, the aforementioned "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid." This song, track eight of seventeen, is where the album begins to pick up speed, the beginning of the climax if you will. It's much more rock oriented then the previous tracks and fully introduces the Queen - something that still brings goosebumps to my skin. The Queen's voice is powerful and demanding, even as beautiful as it is. "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid" is, what I would call, the most single-worthy song of the album, it pretty much carries with it the general outline of the whole album, with enough information given, for the casual observer, to get the point. A son - who happens to be a shape-shifter - begs his mother - the fairy queen - for the love of the human Margaret. A heart-string tugger if I've ever heard one.

After a brief interlude (so named "Interlude"), the album's second single-worthy song, "The Rake's Song," comes blasting out, and a new character is introduced. The Rake is an evil character, used by the Queen, and the song mirrors this, heavy in the drums and guitar, and even contains some screamed vocals (all within the backing, but still, for a folk band it's pretty different). This beast outlines his past evil deeds, and then puts forth his plan to take Margaret, to which the songs directly segues into ("The Abduction Of Margaret"). In this song, the sonic elements of "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid" returns in full swing; the guitars, vocals and maybe even the lyrics (I'm not to sure on that one). Once again it's Meloy for a bit - I'm not sure as the shape-shifter or The Rake - with bits of the Queen's theme throughout, and then her full entrance, with music to match (which comes with the direct blending of "The Abduction Of Margaret" and "The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing," the immediate track). Except that after the usual Queen melodies, the song takes a sort of weird turn, adding in a solid electric guitar and synthesizers/keyboards, coming off as something more akin to 60s British prog-rock then anything folky. The song really stands out from the album, which I believe was the intent, and it really moves you.

The album begins to slow, musically at least, at this point, with all of the cast introduced and the main story themes presented. The folk sounds slowly creep back in, with the very vocal-heavy (Meloy is my new god) "Annan Water" paving the way. The full band sound is still there, but it's moving back into acoustic and reintroduces the layered vocals into the mix. A beautiful song, of the shape-shifter trying to negotiate his life for Margaret's

After all of this, the album begins to wrap up, with the third and fourth versions of The Hazards of Love ("Revenge!" and "The Drowned," respectively), with the reprise of "The Wanting Comes In Waves" thrown in for good measure. I'm assuming somewhere in here a conclusion is reached, but within the schoolgirls choir within "Revenge!" and the rock 'n roll-sounding reprise I've lost the point of it all somewhere. The final track, "The Drowned" tries to pull it all together, and I do get a bit of a conclusion, but not a full ending. Still a powerful end to the album, even if not real clear.

It's really hard to describe this album without going song by song (as I pretty much have done), and even then it's difficult due to the repetition of the themes, the cast of characters, and the layers instruments and melodies. All of these elements twist around each other, producing an amazing ending product, but I find it almost impossible to believe in their composition, The Decemberists know what they're doing. I'm not 100% on the story, as with most concept albums it's a little hard to follow it all completely, but I get the general idea, and I know as time goes on I'll pick up more. The Hazards of Love really strike me as one of those albums I'll be listening to for decades, and picking up a subtle little bits of story and ideas each time.

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