Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Hazards Of Prog

The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love (Rough Trade, 2009)

I know I’m not exactly hot off the press on this one, but I’ve been pondering exactly what to say about this perhaps intentionally ridiculous record. I’ve been a longstanding evangelist for The Decemberists’ anglophile folk-rock and I enjoy Colin Meloy’s literate, narrative take on songwriting. Their last record, ‘The Crane Wife’ was majestic – an ambitious juxtaposition of interconnected song suite and more digestible pop nuggets. Perhaps inevitably, ‘The Hazards of Love’ takes the concept suite format and runs with it, producing something that we might fairly term a ‘rock opera’. One of my major reservations about this record is that the seamless longform folktale seems like too obvious a step for the group, a potential pitfall that they might have more fruitfully avoided. The other niggle, this one perhaps fairer and more significant, is that the group have already done this a good deal better on their excellent musical setting of ‘The Tain’.

Over a longer distance, ‘The Hazards of Love’ doesn’t just tiptoe into excess, it takes a running jump at it. There are thematic connections explored in both lyrics and music – so melodies and sequences already familiar reappear at later junctures. There are guest vocalists (from Lavender Diamond and My Brightest Diamond – does Meloy have a thing for diamonds?) to enable all the characters to be voiced. There are unexpected interjections of violent prog-metal. A small chunk of this record sounds suspiciously like Queen circa ‘A Night At The Opera’, not by any means the most fashionable of influences. Most worryingly of all, there’s a sodding childrens’ choir. Some of it actually works terrifically and many of the individual tracks are really rather good. The complete whole, without so much as a pause for breath, is difficult to digest though and some sections of it are deeply irritating.

In the first instance, it requires a generous spoonful of tolerance to enjoy this rather whimsical nightmare fairytale about Margaret, a woman impregnated by a shape-shifting fawn. Naturally, a rake and a Queen also get involved. Luckily, Meloy’s typically verbose and colourful lyrics help the whole project to be, on balance, more entertaining than alienating. Still, it takes a lot of work on behalf of the listener to digest the music at the same time as following the rather waifer-thin plot. The presence of the guest vocalists is actually a real blessing, as it helps to create contrast amidst the mounting tension and otherwise relentless extravagance.

In some ways, ‘The Hazards of Love’ seems to have something of a split personality. With the influence of Queen, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin never far away, much of it (‘Won’t Want For Love’, ‘Repaid’, the occasional interruptions in ‘The Abduction of Margaret’, ‘The Queen’s Rebuke’) is sludgy, old-fashioned hair rock. By way of contrast, some of the more immediate moments are very much of the moment and somewhat conventional. ‘The Wanting Comes In The Waves’ has a section that rather too closely resembles Arcade Fire. The punishing chug of ‘The Rake’s Song’ could come from any contemporary indie band, although it’s rendered interesting by the palpable savagery in Meloy’s snarly vocal, in character as ‘The Rake’. This is all before we even mention the occasionally tendency towards baroque chamber pop. The oom-pah waltz recasting of the title theme delivered by child’s choir is far too much for me and has so far made me lurch for the skip button every time.

Whilst there’s something rather refreshing in both the retro-rock and harpsichord excursions, they risk the trappings of irony and detachment and, as a result, don’t really move me. It’s very theatrical but not always all that dramatic. The group really prove their mettle on two outstanding songs here which also happen to be the most direct. ‘Annan Water’ alternates between a rolling and tumbling folk strum and a disarmingly beautiful chorus stripped back to just vocals and Hammond organ. The closing final piece in the ‘Hazards of Love’ jigsaw could almost be described as a soft rock ballad – but it’s performed tastefully and is sweetened by one of Colin Meloy’s most delicate and appealing melodies.

With all its transparent indulgences, ‘The Hazards of Love’ sometimes seems to be trying hard to induce a reaction in its listeners. The Decemberists are too good a band for that though and, try as I might, I can’t quite dislike this preposterous record. Meloy’s love for the English folk rock tradition is clear and not even the liberal peppering of harder edged heavy rock can disguise this. After all, it’s not as if we would ever come to a Decemberists album expecting something contemporary and fashionable.

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