Monday, December 12, 2011

The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love (2009)


Hailed in certain circles as an ambitious masterstroke, derided elsewhere as a ridiculous prog rock video game manual set to music, the Decemberists' fifth album is most assuredly their most divisive. That's little wonder since it marks Colin Meloy's full-fledged, off-puttingly sincere attempt at a Concept Record, that great rock & roll disease that's swallowed up so many great minds since the days of Smile and Sgt. Pepper. Meloy deserves a hard-line, passionate defense against those who believe he's a blowhard and a myopic elitist, but material like Hazards makes it very hard not to see the other side's point. The larger perspective, though, is that a fine songwriter will fail at crafting a concept album for the same reason everyone else does: because concept albums are a really stupid fucking idea.

As a composer and lyricist, scruffily pretentious tendencies and all, Meloy is analogous to Ray Davies in the '60s. After signing to RCA in 1971, Davies sent the Kinks down a mortifying rabbit hole of LPs that consisted of "acts" and "scenes" and "characters." Fans of both bands can think of The Hazards of Love as Meloy's Preservation. As with that two-part horror, the scant virtues are primarily measured by the willingness of the hardcore fan to sift through the scene-settings and interludes and guest vocalists and so on to find, like, the songs. The number of actual songs, not counting obliquely generic rants like "The Rake's Song," comes to something like five, out of seventeen tracks. That's along the lines of Smile, another truly baffling project some guilty pop culturalists swallow as high art.

It's neither possible nor worth the trouble to parse much out about the plot Meloy has crafted here, which involves fairies and shapeshifters and children dying and a lot of other stuff you'd expect the Decemberists' primary architect to find interesting. Complete goofiness, all of it. A pity, really, because some of the musical ideas and motifs aren't half-bad. The Arcade Fire cascade of "The Wanting Comes in Waves" and the repeated mutations of the main theme are haunting when addled neither with guest Becky Stark's shrill preening (the early standout "Won't Want for Love" has tension to die for if you can ignore her contributions) or with the earsplitting overuse of thudding RAWK electric guitar effects.

The sheer outlandishness of the prog rock ideas here overwhelms all; there's something morbidly cool about hearing ghost children sing the chorus near the end, and the band does a decent job of aping Genesis and ELP, but being good at something that's not worth doing is a dubious premise. This is all, frankly, sort of embarrassing, and not a little hard to listen to. Even the good vocal performances, by Meloy and especially by My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden, frequently get drowned out by Zep-Floydian plodding. And the fact that we're supposed to believe each of the singers is playing a "character" does not help.

Two major caveats, though, to dismissing Hazards: In late 2009 my girlfriend and I saw it performed live. It's a different beast entirely on stage, with so much aplomb and intelligently bleak theatricality that even the hardest-core haters are (or were) bound to enjoy themselves; Meloy was so enthusiastic during "The Rake's Song" he nearly made me care about his daft, emotionless plot, and "The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)," really just a reprise, really came out and across as a stunningly strong piece of work, one of the band's top songs to date. The spontaneity and verve of the stage performance expanded and improved the album many times over.

Secondly, this really strongly brings back that entire period of mid- to late-2009 to me. As long as I concentrate on those memories and not on the queens and princesses and forest creatures, I can appreciate some of Hazards -- and it's mine to make what I want of it, so why not. At any rate, one assumes Capitol is overjoyed -- prog rock having long since passed its peak of popularity -- that the Decemberists reverted to somewhat conventional songwriting and structure on 2011's The King Is Dead. Hate to be that guy, but I'm pretty glad too.

The King Is Dead (2011)
iTunes Session EP (2011)
Long Live the King EP (2011)

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