Prior to writing this review, I had only listened to one song by the Decemberists. It was a low-key, rustic sort of folk ballad, with a music video that featured a bunch of aging hipsters gallivanting around in overcoats. I think the title, and the lyrics, were moderately related to the Civil War. I could be wrong though. But the point is with only one song the Decemberists left an irrevocably bad taste in my mouth, simply due to their tired embrace of Americana tropes and dated, meandering historical poetry. I have this bad habit where I dismiss bands outright due to the simplest of errors, so it was probably more my fault that theirs. However, every article I read following my doomed encounter with the band confirmed my initial suspicions: they were Just Another Indie Folk Band, nothing to see there.
And then I found out The Hazards of Love existed. Based on the premise alone, this morose little concept album deserves a second glance: it’s a twisted little fable about a woman who falls in love with a shape-shifting being, who initially appears to her as a wounded deer. The shape-shifter’s benefactor, The Forest Queen, is quite displeased with the blossoming romance and begins a cycle of violence and torment that ends with the two star-crossed lovers drowning themselves in the rushing river, no longer troubled by life’s unending tribulations. Even if my initial assessment of the band’s sound had been correct (which, upon further research, it seems it totally wasn’t) this is the sort of pretentious, woefully ambitious conceptual piece that demands any music fan’s attention.
Nevertheless, if you factor out the English-major soliloquies and the short bursts of polished acoustic strumming, this is a concept album with a long lineage, trying its very hardest to keep up with the landmark rock operas of the 70′s and 80′s. The prog sensibilities are here in spades; this record is inundated with crunchy hard rock chords, and spry licks that recall bands like Led Zeppelin and Heart. It’s possible to spend hours arguing over whether or not those early riff rock bands deserve their hallowed positions in music history, but even so, it’s hard to deny the cultural expectations that accompany an emulation of their signature styles. On the whole, The Hazards of Love is surprisingly low-key, and will never achieve the same sort of instant recognition as its stylistic predecessors. Instead, it situates itself in an unassuming niche in today’s musical landscape—a toothless prog opera for the Starbucks Millennial. It sort of works.
Let’s tackle the story first, because I genuinely cannot structure these reviews any other way. Every single one of these songs could be thoroughly understood with a quick trip to any lyric site on the web. Singer Colin Meloy clearly isn’t interested in shadowy metaphors, so the ghastly little story is pretty much exposed for any curious listener to examine. And, having poured over the plot quite a bit myself, I can tell you that it’s…kind of worth your time. Sort of. Apart from its desolate cruelty and antiquated prose, there really isn’t too much that distinguishes it within the canon of rock operas. It merely feels like a shadowy perpetuation of old stereotypes, briefly moving but unrewarding in the long term. The hideous character of The Rake is introduced in his own little song, called “The Rake’s Song” (imagine that), recalling the mid-album entrance of St. Jimmy in every 13-year-old’s favorite album, American Idiot. His casual indifference towards the murder of his children is pure evil, and super fun.
“Charlotte, I buried after feeding her foxglove/Dawn was easy, she drowned in the bath/Eziah fought but was easily bested/Burned his body for incurring my wrath”
At least Colin’s sense of humor is partially on display here; irreverent black comedy that offers the tentative promise of something more. Even the greatest concept albums harbour a certain amount of cheesiness in their innermost being, an over-exaggerated identification with improbable characters or situations. But somewhere along the way, The Decembrists ditch the cheesiness, the tongue-in-cheek morbidity, and the soul of The Rake’s Song, opting instead to be cruel for the sake of cruelty, disguising their exhausted literary tropes with oodles of tragedy and emotion and stuff. The Forest Queen is threatening in a predictably step-motherish fashion. The romance is predictably sweet and tumultuous. As a result, what was ostensibly to be the tear-soaked denouement (their final union as they plunge into the roaring rivers, drowning themselves) ends up losing much of its emotional impact. It’s like they feverishly stuffed as many archetypes as they could into a single story, just to see how badly they could screw over their hapless protagonists. The story possesses a certain kind of internal consistency, sure, but you get the sense that they only made the unlucky couple off themselves because, well, y’know, Shakespeare did that a lot.
Well, at least we get an eclectic blend of heavy metal and folk though, right? The problem is, that would only be (kind of) cool if both genres were represented with equal reverence and skill. The Decembrists are kind of terrible at making metal, unfortunately. The second problem is, metal is the predominant genre on T.H.O.L, particularly when it comes to the key musical motifs. One of the multiple repeated phrases first appears in “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid”; this lick feels annoyingly underdeveloped, and continues to grate on the earlobes during its multiple appearances. This is one of the core problems marring The Decembrists Heavy Metal Odyssey—many of the riffs simply feel incomplete, like they were hastily put together during a jam session, and left unmodified until it was time to record.
While it’s generally agreed upon that you have to be a reasonably competent singer in order to sing lead for a band (or at least have some sort of presence or magnetic energy), the overall pleasantness of a person’s voice can be quite subjective at times (some people think Joanna Newsom’s music is great, and others liken her singing voice to the death cries of tortured marsupial. I’m in the “all of the above” camp). But to me, a lot of the voices on here just don’t work, at least not for the parts they’ve been assigned. Colin’s nasally, eternally sardonic voice fails to lend any sort of authenticity to the pretty heartbreak ballads, coming across as either petulant or unattached. He’s much better masquerading as The Rake; the vile self-assurance of that character demands a voice like his.
Ultimately, it’s the predominately acoustic tracks that really shine, simple ditties that reinforce the meagre sense of atmosphere. Despite its vocal miscast, “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?” accomplishes what it sets out to do, following a simple picked acoustic melody that’s tastefully complimented by what sounds like accordion, an unorthodox instrument that grants the track a certain aura of wistful complacency. The final track “The Hazards of Love 4-The Drowned” redeems its unearned pathos via a bare-bones campfire strumming pattern, later joined by a solemn procession of rhythm instruments and slide guitar. It coaxes emotion and reflection out of you, whether you want it to or not. And for a single, fleeting moment, The Decembrists kind of sound like the bands they’re trying to copy.
Normally I like to cap off lukewarm reviews with a disclaimer of sorts. “It’s not that great but you’d enjoy it if…”
I don’t know, I just always seem desperate to find merit in any piece of media, no matter how bad it actually is. But while The Hazards of Love does have its shining moments, I can find no reason why you’d bother listening to this record instead of a bazillion other rock operas put out over the decades. You can find better indie folk elsewhere (even, it seems, in other sections of the band’s own catalog). You can certainly find better hard rock/metal elsewhere. Well, I suppose if you’ve listened to every concept album you can possibly think of, and are yearning for more stories told with guitars and drums and such, you might find yourself considering this release. Or if you’ve ever wanted to fuck a dude who can shape-shift into a deer. Then this album’s for you, friend. This one’s for you.