At the point towards the end of ‘Hazards of Love’ when a chilling children’s choir recital gives way to what sounds ominously like a reheated take on Bon Jovi’s cod-outlaw epic ‘Wanted Dead Or Alive’, it’s temptingly easy to assume the Decemberists have totally lost the plot. Why else would the Portland bunch have chosen to tackle the most infamously navigation-proof of all musical dead ends: the concept album?
We’re not talking about any kind of a loose theme to link together a patch of individual tunes cobbled together at the last minute prior to release date to provide a handy angle for press reports either, oh no. ‘Hazards of Love’ is the real deal, the kind of fearsomely complex song cycle much-mocked troupes ala Yes and Genesis used to embark on in their 70’s pomp. It’s not hard to envision heads being buried deep in hands at the Decemberists’ label when the follow-up to 2007’s unashamedly ambitious, literately high-brow yet unfailingly accessible and commercially successful ‘The Crane Wife’ was unleashed. Here we are, supposedly deep into an era when listeners can’t be expected to devote more than five minutes of their time to any band, genre or sound at any given time, and this five-piece are insisting on putting out a full-blown rock opera, a 17-song opus intended to be gobbled down in one sitting, with more plot twists than a finely honed thriller and a catalogue of characters – a fair maiden, her lover, a mean forest queen, a cold-blooded rake - straight out of a particularly frosty ancient folk tale.
An almost foolhardily ambitious undertaking, then, yet songwriter Colin Meloy and co pull it off – almost. The devilishly complex, folk song-inspired narrative dripping with revenge, thwarted love and killed babies propelling ‘Hazards of Love’ becomes compelling with repeated listens, and the whole crackpot concept makes undeniable sense. After all, the band’s finest moments to date have drawn their inspiration from the beguiling place where history and myth meet. ‘Hazards of Love’ simply takes this process further by stretching the narrative from four minute snapshots into a full-length epic. Such a bravely anomalous move at a time the album as an art form is meant to be slipping into irrelevance has to be applauded, whether or not you’re willing to pay sufficient attention for the story win you over.
Not that the album is entirely problem-free. Occasionally, it seems as if the need to move the narrative on has stifled Meloy’s songwriting skills, with a few sections seeming a bit forced and stilted. Musically, ‘Hazards of Love’s all too willing to slip into the kind of leaden riffage and ominously prog-laden overstatement that provided the few misfiring moments on ‘The Crane Wife’. But when the band and assorted guests are capable of restraining their urge to rock out, most notably so on the wonderful versions of the title track that open the close the platter and the desperately anthemic ‘The Wanting Comes in Waves’, the results are near-magical. Approach with caution, but please do approach.