The Decemberists

The Hazards of Love

(Capitol Records; 2009)

By Eric Sams | 20 April 2009

Here’s my complete, integrated, fully considered opinion of The Hazards of Love: it’s cool.

It’s cool in exactly the big, pretentious, medieval emo romance, fantasy roll-play way that it intends to be. It’s like the Dracula musical subplot in the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Facially it is absolutely ridiculous, but I could sing you a couple bars from that bitch on demand. I would have bought tickets to that musical, and I’d buy tickets to this musical. I’d be pretty pumped walking into the theatre, playbill in hand, sitting down and alternately tittering and rocking out (both reactions are anticipated) for a the next few hours. For one thing, the pyrotechnics for the Hazards stage production (Colin Meloy assures us there won’t be one) would be—and I choose this term precisely—bitchingly awesome.

Picturing this night out at your local performing arts center is crucial, because though most who discuss this album will act like it is just that—an indie album—it actually isn’t, and it would be ridiculous if it was, and people who willfully ignore that fact just to bring The Hate are missing the point. The Hazards of Love is a full-fledged and unabashed (gulp) rock opera and sniping at it like it was, say, Snow Patrol, is like buying tickets to the show, putting on your nice blue suit, and going to the theatre only to throw eggs at the stage. It’s like buying the original soundtrack to Rent and then proclaiming loudly that you found the characters’ plucky resilience “gay.”

In a pattern stretching more broadly than response to this particular album though, there has been (in the plaid quarters where such things are discussed) a positive uproar in the past few weeks, months, and years of the Decemberists’ ascendancy over the fact that Colin Meloy will stalwartly refuse to apologize for the rakish tilt of his cap. His straightman façade is assailed in myriad ways. His history isn’t robust enough, too nerdily removed from the emotion to be visceral. His pop is too historical, too contextually involved with specific dates and places to be enjoyed for the simple confection that it often is. More salient though are the simple and one-edged barbs: he’s a fake. It’s a fraud. He mispronounced “Tain” once.

These nebulous allegations of “inauthenticity” have been the watchwords of Decemberists-based criticism since their Portland days, but as Meloy’s petulant showmanship reaches brave new heights with the band’s new (gulp) rock opera the calls for his bespectacled head have frenzied a bit. He must have known the fury that this record would unleash, considering the polarizing effect of The Crane Wife (2006), a record loosely threaded around a Japanese cautionary fable, and a likely prototype for Hazards‘ complete devotion to one narrative.

Meloy’s no stranger to galvanizing crowds, though, and there’s ample evidence that he’s aware of the phenomenon. Consider “I Was Meant For the Stage” recorded way back in 2003 for sophomore album Her Majesty. At the time it would have seemed like a tossed-off late album character study, but its lyrics read now like a prescient statement of purpose: “I was meant for applause / I was meant for derision / Nothing short of fate itself has affected my decision.” He’s had plenty of both applause and derision but neither seems to have altered what is becoming an increasingly clear artistic course. Meloy conducts himself with the steadfastness of a man following the Bethlehem star of his fait accompli. There is also evidence from recent interviews that this (gulp) rock opera is the culmination of that course. The magnum opus.

Both are present here in heavy doses. So what if that opus happens to be, you know, a rock opera? We can all stop gulping. If not for the meddling of a few too-hip indie revisionists, the Decemberists have always been effectively theatrical. In fact, they are effectively theatrical precisely because Colin Meloy insists on deadpanning this stuff, like a stage actor refusing to break character. It’s a calculated performance device. So if “inauthentic” means fake: to my knowledge Meloy does not claim to have actually been present during the American Civil War, nor in ancient Japan, nor during any kind of cow-related uprising in the Ulster. I don’t know if he’s ever been a pirate either, but that didn’t stop all of the “dug-the-early-work” folks from bobbing head to harpsichord and accordion laden jams on Her Majesty and Castaways and Cutouts (2002). So who gives a fuck if he appropriates these voices and styles?

And he writes the bevy of characters here with trademark aplomb. “The Rake’s Song” is the joyous, unadulterated pop song so much celebrated on previous Decemberists albums. Here’s your “Sporting Life.” Here’s your “July, July.” Those blind, insistent acoustic trebles chipping away at your conscience as the Rake blurts out his vicious yarn. Also: it’s a pop song about infanticide, folks! And he still has the balls to put a chant in the chorus. Then there’s the interlude on “The Hazards of Love (Revenge!)” where a chorus of those same murdered yet undead whelps sing a word of placid warning back to their homicidal father over a loping harpsichord and the arrhythmic screeching of strings. So, you know, like I said, cool.

There are also some genuinely good standalone cuts here. Shara Worden’s cameo on “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing” is a sprawling bit of early ’70s blues rawk in the midst of a largely precious tracklist, “Annan Water” is a classically structured lover’s plea, “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)” unspools the same kind of haunting melody as Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.” True, it is also the kind of soaring, gleefully overwrought, overproduced, folk pop that drive detractors to acts of libelous message board violence and depravity. But if “inauthentic” means commercial then it should be noted that Hazards is essentially the definition of a passion project.

I’m not, despite the tenor of this review, a Decemberists apologist. If Meloy ever surrendered totally to the smugness that underlies most of his material, I’d be the first one with a knife in my teeth, ready to carve his twee ass up. It’s just that the adverse reaction to his work up to this point has been so clumsy and knee-jerk. Like anything so earnestly done, The Hazards of Love is mortally vulnerable to snark. I guess in an age of overreaction, I am just prone to overreact to overreaction. In the age of Fox News, and Keith Olberman’s rabidity, and HOPE, and DOOMSDAY, and a culture which is becoming increasingly comfortable with the notion of always having to Hate Something, here’s where I’m making my stand. And I am not wearing plaid.