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The Decemberists’ new folk-rock opera, The Hazards of Love, traces a well-worn arc: Boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy loses girl to spawnicidal rake, rake is besieged by ghosts of his murdered children, boy gets girl back, boy and girl drown in turbulent metaphorical river.
Like we’ve never heard that one before.
For the eccentric Portland quintet, an opera was an inevitable turn, since it’s the ideal vehicle for songwriter Colin Meloy’s elaborate lyrical constructions. Meloy—a bookish esotericist who tends to dress the part of a door-to-door Bible salesman—has exhibited a knack for narrative songwriting throughout the Decemberists’ career, from the quirky character sketches in Her Majesty the Decemberists and Picaresque to the suites of the band’s last album, The Crane Wife. While The Decemberists’ first attempt at this sort of project—an 18-minute EP called The Tain—was a mediocre effort, the their musical style fits the form. In the context of an album-length song cycle, Meloy’s language, which tends toward the obscure and archaic, sounds less stilted.
The Hazards of Love places us in a medieval mythscape where corncrakes crow in lieu of roosters, disapproving sisters dis each other’s beaus as “irascible blackguards,” and it’s not unusual for maidens a-wandering in the taiga to be impregnated by shapeshifting forest-children. So it is with Margaret, the album’s embattled heroine, who finds her own belly big with child courtesy of a sympathetic he-nymph named William. Overtaken by idealistic love, the two embark on a doomed romance beset by a jealous mother and a wanton rapist.
There’s something distinctly Candide in the young lovers’ maudlin naïveté and the bittersweet way they turn out. Meloy establishes his pessimism in the first iteration of the album’s title track: “Oh, the hazards of love / You’ll learn soon enough / The prettiest whistles won’t wrestle the thistles undone.” The “hazards of love,” outlined thereafter, are legion: jealousy, ambivalence, lust, vengeance, and self-destruction, to name a few.
The album features some of the grungiest, guitar-thick arrangements the band has produced to date. The harpsichords, organs, and accordions are still there, though, along with Meloy’s distinctive, nasal melodies. And while the characters are by no means the most interesting ones Meloy has ever created, The Hazards of Love has enough dark, playful energy to be compelling anyway.