The Decemberists have always worn their pretension like a badge of honor, whether they were singing sea songs (2003’s Her Majesty, The Decemberists) or bringing theater geekiness to indie rock (2005’s Picaresque). But when the band jumped to Capitol in 2006 and released the mostly tepid The Crane Wife, which featured a song arc constructed around a Japanese fable, that pretension (which is typically evident in frontman Colin Meloy’s dense verbiage and tenuous story-laden album set-ups) began to take over.
On The Hazards of Love, a 17-song cycle that traces the story of a girl, her shape shifting lover, and a rake, the band have finally let the pompous aspect of their psyche take center stage, relegating concerns like cohesion, good hooks, and sing-along moments (which the Decemberists used to be masters at) to bit players. It’s with Hazards of Love the Decemberists win their bid to be this generation’s kings of self-absorbed prog-rock.
In interviews in the last few weeks, Meloy has taken to calling Hazards of Love a “rock-opera,” but not the kind that would be staged; more like the entire album is set up as one long story. It’s telling that Meloy backed off saying he’d stage the album, because Hazards of Love isn’t convincing opera or rock. The songs never really have any firm beginnings or ends (and most are actually too long and over-stuffed), and the story is mostly pointless to follow (since it’s roughly 13 tracks of moody exposition followed by three tracks of closure) that no one will really pay attention to the supposed “climax” when the main character (voiced by Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark) faces off against the rake and an evil queen (voiced by album MVP, My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden).
However, Hazards of Love has does share one thing in common with operas — there are a lot of big flashy moments here, like the crushing stoner-metal riff on “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid,” the plucky rhythm and droning bass of “The Rake’s Song,” and the stomping, swaying barroom strut of “Won’t Wait for Love (Margaret in the Taiga).” Worden presides over the album’s strongest moments (she plays the voice of the evil queen) as the Decemberists rise to the task of providing her vocals the crushing authority they demand, a service they should have extended to the relatively flat and prickly segments that Meloy serves as the main character.
It’s a credit to the Decemberists that they would have the chutzpah to sign to a major label and release Hazards of Love, because it’s hard to imagine a suit sitting in a room giving Meloy the thumbs up during the scene where the rake murders his children. But where past Decemberists albums rewarded delving deeply into the milieu the Decemberists had created, Hazards of Love fails to provide much worth that probing.