I never got around to formally reviewing The Decemberist's latest album, The Hazards of Love, when it was released this past spring, but when I saw that they were coming up Vermont, I elected to hold off until I'd watched them in person and kill two birds with one stone.
The Decemberists is a group that I admittedly have a hard time with. They were largely introduced to me through a now-ex girlfriend, bringing back some memories that I've not really thought about for a long time. Initially, I really disliked these guys to begin with. I hadn't gotten to the point where I would sit down and process songs - I just didn't like the sound. That changed when I listened their first major record, The Crane Wife, which I really enjoyed. Listening to them a bit more, I really got into their lyrics and began to enjoy some of their earlier songs as well, although I still think that the Crane Wife is one of their best albums to date.
The Hazards of Love, then, was an interesting experience. Initially, I wasn't as fond of it. It was a little too out there, I remember thinking, after my first listen through it. A friend of mine told me that he liked it more, because of the prog-rock roots and connected nature of the entire album. This prompted me to go back and listen to it a couple more times with this in mind, plus a little research through the internet to some of the themes and references throughout, and I enjoyed it a lot more.
The Hazards of Love was initially conceived as a rock-musical, of sorts. Several additional singers (Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond, Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and Jim James of My Morning Jacket) were brought in to sing the various 'parts' that make their appearances throughout the story. The first song really sets the story in motion, when Margaret, voiced by Stark, comes across a shape-shifting fawn, and they fall in love. She then becomes pregnant and goes off to find William (the fawn). We later learn that his mother, the Forest Queen had cast a spell upon him (this is influenced by a number of mythologies - she had saved his life in a river when he was a baby) and he can only remain human during the night. The Queen caught William, and he bargains her for a single night of freedom to be with Margaret. The Queen agrees, at a cost - one night, and after that, his freedom is hers. We're then introduced to the character of the Rake, who's killed his children and when he comes across Margaret, he kidnaps her and takes her to the Annan Waters (the same river where William was rescued). The Queen comes across the Rake, and knowing that Margaret is the only thing that can take William from her, she offers to take Margaret and the Rake across to cause everyone some misery. The Rake continues to escape, but is haunted by the ghosts of his children, and in the struggle, William catches up, and kills the Rake. However, to cross the river the first time, William offered up his body to the waters once again, and when they attempt to cross, and together, they drown in the river.
Like the rest of the Decemberists songs, this is a very complicated album. The themes alone are characteristic of the group, as are their lyrics, and after working out just what this album is about, I absolutely love it. When I finally realized the good parts of the Decemberists, their lyrics, complicated stories and sound, I really got into it, and this is much the same case here. The Hazards of Love is a stunning, complicated and beautiful album. I highly recommend giving it a good solid listen - be warned, this is the sort of album that requires you to really pay attention to the lyrics.
Last night, The Decemberists appeared at the Flynn Theater in Burlington, Vermont, opened by Laura Veirs and the Hall of Flames. The Flames were decent, but a newer band that really sounded like they were learning their sound. At times, they sounded fairly good - when all were singing together. Veirs on her own felt very unsupported, and out of place. Hopefully we'll hear a bit more from them, improved, in the future.
The Decemberists as a group are a fantastic live act, and the Flynn was a fantastic place to see them live. Unfortunately, my phone died, and I was unable to take down the set list. According to Colin Meloy, they intended to play The Hazards of Love in its entirety, but because Becky Stark's flight was cancelled, they improvised, playing a mixed set of old and new songs. There were a number of notable songs that they played, from 16 Military Wives, Apology Song, The Crane Wife 3, as well as a couple of older, more obscure ones that I didn't know the names off the top of my head.
One of the things that really impressed me was at how much of the show was a group act, not Colin Meloy supported by the remaining band members. Throughout the show, given the nature of the album and their songs, it seemed like the sound was put together by everyone, each with an integral part that made the result what it was. While Meloy was certainly one of the more visible parts of the group, it's a group effort, through and through.
I was also impressed with the sheer energy and drama that they brought forth from the stage. The group was already fairly theatrical, from what I'd heard, but once again, given the nature of Hazards, there was certainly a bit of acting between some of the singers during those songs. Shara Worden provided a stunning stage presence with her other-worldly like appearance of the Forest Queen, as well as her cover of Crazy On Me, originally by Heart. I really wish that I had been able to see the full performance of Hazards, because I suspect that would really be something to see. Hopefully the group will feel the need to make it up to Burlington, and return again in the near future.