For the Decemberists, perhaps it's not love that they should be wary of, but the hazards of rock operas, which are thorny indeed. For their fifth LP, The Hazards of Love, the Portland band bites off a mammoth-sized chunk of complex narrative, complete with shape-shifters, folk staples, '70s metal riffing, and a labyrinthine maze of baroque phrasing. It's epic.
But is it too much? Is this thistle (albeit a pretty whistle) of an album worth the effort it takes to embrace it? Initially the 17-song suite is not an easy album to love or understand; it requires a Herculean feat of concentration to follow the storyline, and as its wash of music flows from one song into the next with nary a breath between, it can feel a bit like flailing in a dark well. But the album is rewarding, heady stuff—beautiful, lush, and evocative, a gratifying listen from start to finish in an impatient era of singles. It may take a concerted effort, but the Decemberists' newest is a grand, ambitious piece of work that gets better and better on repeat.
According to the Decemberists' raconteur Colin Meloy, it wasn't so easy to make either. "I don't think I'll do anything like The Hazards of Love for a long time. It was an experiment with a different mode of making a record—something that was so painstakingly thought out, very cerebral in its way. It was a record where we had to break everything up into 30 separate pieces and work on them individually. I don't think I would want to repeat it... at least not anytime soon," he says, adding that he's working on songs for a new album with a more American-folk bent.
Sitting at the downtown Stumptown Coffee, Meloy wouldn't delve into the album's plot—I assumed because he was tired of rehashing the story of William and Margaret and their star-cross'd love affair. "Actually, I haven't [talked about the story] 'cause when we did The Crane Wife, I was telling that story so many times I almost swore off doing anything with a narrative. But with this [album] I think it's safe to say that it should be left up to the listener to really devise their own narrative. It's just a pastiche of folk song tropes sewn together, so it's supposed to be an abstracted narrative."
Meloy notes that the names Margaret and William have popped up again and again in folk songs throughout the ages. "They're kind of archetypal names for archetypal characters. Margaret is the innocent ingénue. William, her love interest, is often poor and sort of marries up. Yeah, Margaret and William are the everyman and everywoman of folk songs," Meloy explains. "I think it's because the cadence of the names sound good in songs, but also so many of these stories come from the same place at a time before recorded music. People were half remembering songs, and those songs became different songs that maintained the bones."
Meloy, an antiquer of words and folk songs, doesn't consider himself a thespian on The Hazards of Love, even though he sings the first-person vocals of William and the Rake, two wildly dissimilar roles. "I wasn't imagining playing different characters. I didn't want theatricality to distract from the music itself," he says. First and foremost, Meloy is a storyteller who saves songs from the gallows so they can carry on, to be told again.