THE DECEMBERISTS- HAZARDS OF LOVE
Looking through a teleological lens, The Decemberists’s latest LP should surprise no one. Their catalogue has been tending toward proggy song suites since the release of 2004’s shuddering, whip-crack riff on epic poetry, The Tain. However, unlike that record, which matched passages of imperfect melody with cacophonous and savage drumming, Hazards feels—for a record concerning infanticide, rape, and shape-shifting animals—rather too polished. Like Hazards’ shape-shifting William, The Decemberists have completed a transformation of their own, emerging as a troupe of ultra-competent chamber musicians, splicing melodies in a now-predictable pattern.
Meloy has always been an ambitious songsmith, self-satisfied with the wildest rhymes this side of Joanna Newsom [Picaresque’s “The Infanta” features couplets that match ‘palanquin’ with ‘elephant’ and ‘parapets’ with ‘coronets’]. However, Hazards finds Meloy becoming obsessed with structure, taking his conceit of interwoven long songs with even more ferocity. 2006’s The Crane Wife starts at the end with “Crane Wife 3” and revisits the story later, creating an ironic and terrible tension as well as a satisfying cyclical conceit. Here, the four part “Hazards of Love” suite seems to drag.
Ultimately, Hazards is very much a sequel to The Crane Wife, treading much of the same material—metamorphosis, tragic love, rape, and violence—but tracing a tighter focus. Crane Wife spun out into diversions of thematically similar Civil War melodrama and Romeo and Juliet pop bliss to break the monotony of a singular narrative. Those ill-fitting studio delights were tossed off in the fall of 2008 in a small-release singles series, Always the Bridesmaid. And so, Hazards takes itself too seriously for too long—17 interconnected songs with a set dramatis personae—as represented here by particularly strong cameos from Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark and My Brightest Diamond’s breathtaking Shara Worden, whose turn as The Queen challenges Meloy’s vocal authority, and brings the band into dark and exciting territory.
While new listeners to the Decemberists might find something to love in Hazards, old fans will have seen all of this coming—with a little dread—from miles away. [I’ll confess my own geekery—I’ve seen Meloy play more than ten times] They will inevitably make Crane Wife comparisons. “Hazards of Love 4” is this album’s denouement “Sons & Daughters.” The rollicking single “The Rake’s Song” sounds like the best parts of “The Island.” “The Wanting Comes in Waves” rings a little too closely to “Crane Wife 2,” Meloy’s pleading repetition now pretty shopworn territory.
There has always been a delightful tongue-in-cheek bent to The Decemberists—best seen in the self-effacing bombast of “I Was Meant For The Stage” and hilarious schadenfreude of “The Sporting Life.” Their Victorian penny novel vibe has always been as self-conscious as it is enjoyable. There is plenty of excellent material on The Hazards of Love—ammunition enough for one hell of an exhausting live show. But I worry that no matter what kind of structural pyrotechnics Meloy’s conjured up on this latest one, he hasn’t let in enough light.