The Hazards of Love (Capitol Records), the fifth Decemberists album, is a romantic fairy tale, albeit one with some extremely dark passages, and a very sad ending. Musically, Colin Meloy wanted to explore the very real connection between British folk revival music and classic metal, and points to Sandy Denny’s performance on Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” as a point where the two came together. Meloy based his songs on old folk songs, and developed a narrative, and characters to be a part of it.
Lyrically, this very ambitious album tells the story of Margaret, who leaves the safety of her home for the dangers of the forest, where she is ravaged by a shape-shifting creature. The creature, first seen in the form of a fawn, becomes her lover, William. Pregnant, she returns to the forest to seek out William because “the wanting comes in waves.” William, who was either saved or stolen as a baby, depending on who’s telling the story, begs his mother The Queen, to grant him one more night in human form so that he may be with Margaret again.
On her return to the forest, Margaret is abducted by The Rake, who is a very bad guy. He rejoices over the fact that his wife died in childbirth, and proceeds to murder his remaining three children. He poisons his oldest daughter Charlotte, and then drowns her sister Dawn, before beating his son Isaiah to death and then burning his body for daring to resist him. As I said at the outset, dark. All of this is captured in “The Rake’s Song.”
William sets out to rescue his love, but can’t cross the wide river Annan. He pleads with the river to allow to cross, and in returns offers his life. At this point The Rake’s children return to take their revenge on their father, and William sets out to rescue Margaret, “The Wanting Comes In Waves (Reprise),” and succeeds, only to have them both drown when they try to cross the river again. Phew!
It took me three very focused listens to get, and get into this album. When I saw the Decemberists play it in full at SXSW last week, I still wasn’t sure what I thought. It is absolutely essential to follow the lyrics to truly understand the story, and understanding the story is essential to enjoying the album. These songs don’t really stand on their own out of context. That’s not to say that they’re not very strong, just that they belong here, in the suite, as crucial parts of the whole. Mention should be made of guest artists Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond, who sings the role of Margaret, and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, who is The Queen.
I am enjoying this album more each time I play it. Now that I know the story, I don’t have to be so focused on the lyrics. This is an intelligently written and performed piece of music, and it’s going to take a little work from the listener to truly appreciate it. If you’re willing to put in a bit of time, I think the rewards here are abundant.