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Review

Decemberists’ album excels in inventiveness, lacks focus

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March 26, 2009

The beloved Oregon-based Indie folk quintet, The Decemberists, have offered up their own attempt at a concept album, with results that are curious, stimulating and compelling, albeit only in the short term.

“Hazards of Love,” the band’s fifth studio album, is essentially one long 17-track fantasy narrative—a strangely eloquent and often extremely confusing tale involving a shape-shifters, forest creatures, love and murder.

“It was initially conceived as a musical…but I decided about halfway through that it wasn’t going to work as a stage piece,” frontman Colin Meloy said. “It would still work as a rock record, so that’s where it ended up.”

The album features appearances by a few guest vocalists (new for the band), including the relatively unknown and much underrated Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and the great Jim James of My Morning Jacket.

“I wanted to have different voices singing different songs, so it would be like a fake musical,” Meloy said during recording.

The clear highlight is “The Rake’s Song,” a shockingly gruesome account by a protagonist who married out of youthful lust, then quickly found the situation disdainful when his wife became pregnant: “I was wedded and it whetted my thirst / Until her womb start spilling out babies / Only then did I reckon my curse.”

The “humble narrator” finally achieves peace of mind only after brutally disposing of the three little ones (“Dawn was easy, she drowned in the bath / Isaiah fought but was easily bested / Burned his body for incurring my wrath”). It certainly should make listeners wonder what inspires these dark thoughts that are swimming around in Meloy’s head.

“The Wanting Comes in Waves,” is another bright spot—a mishmash of beautiful melodies and dueling instrumentals topped off by Meloy’s wavering wails and Shara Worden’s slow, smoky drawl. The subject matter may be totally cryptic (“Soft disturbance in the deadfall how / It proceeds you like a black smoke pall”), but it sure sounds good. 

Some of the more head-scratching moments include “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing,” which features a weird mix of poetic imagery and a deep, growling (and completely uncharacteristic) heavy metal riff that acts as the slow and steady heartbeat of the track. 

As always, the lyrics possess an impressive, stand-alone literary quality. However, the subject matter of the record is so abstract and difficult to grasp, it often tarnishes the idiosyncratic, whimsical feel that made their previous album, “The Crane Wife,” so great. Too many of the “tracks” feel like an obtuse puzzle pieces—despite forced attempts to jam them into place, they don’t quite fit into the larger picture. 

“The Hazards of Love” is an incredibly brave and ambitious attempt, but once the novelty factor starts to wear off, it begins to sound more and more muddled and confusing. The charming, singsong hooks that fans have grown accustomed to are simply too few and far between.

The Decembrists should be commended for pushing themselves into new creative avenues, and especially for forcing audiences to expand their attention spans.  Unfortunately, the end result fails to make any sort of lasting, indelible mark.

Andrew Phelps is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.