Listen to it once. Listen to it twice. Listen to it five times, and you’ll still have no idea what it’s about. But you’ll like it.
“Hazards of Love” has all the makings of a great Decemberists album: a root in folk, blatant yet cryptic lyrics, odd instruments that pop up when you least expect them (harpsichord, anyone?) and a story that you must work to understand.
The story is what drives this album. It is a concept album, no doubt, with recurring musical themes and characters voiced by guest artists. But the Decemberists would never settle for something so easily done – instead of a straight narrative, the story of Margaret and her lover William is broken up by “The Rake,” a man hell-bent on regaining his freedom from life as a widowed father. The most frustrating (or delicious) part of this album is that it takes a few mighty listening to really decipher what is going on and to whom each voice belongs.
The story begins with William telling the tale of his true love entering a forest, or taiga, which requires a Wikipedia run to define (a biome covering Alaska, Canada, and upper parts of Europe). The album is full of words that aren’t so common these days, adding another layer of interest. Margaret, voiced by Becky Stark, encounters The Queen, voiced by Shara Worden. The tale of Margaret, William and The Forest Queen (and the mysterious child she bears) is convoluted at best, but the enigma of it makes it even more entertaining for the avid listener.
Margaret’s song, revealing thoughts during her journey early on (“Won’t Want For Love (Margaret in the Taiga)”) is the real gem of the album, juxtaposing Stark’s New Folk voice with a driving guitar accompaniment that could have come straight off a Led Zeppelin album.
After William finds Margaret, they sing a love duet, “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?” accompanied by sighing guitars and an accordion.
The Forest Queen makes her first appearance with “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid,” and Worden’s full, rustic voice gives her an edge that could chill bones as the Queen reprimands her “son” for abandoning her. It is here that the narrative really starts to take shape and draw the listener in.
This is followed by “The Rake’s Song.” It details the marriage of the narrator (the only character to break the fourth wall to address the audience) with gritty, expressive lyrics that could only be pulled off in such a cavalier way by the Decemberists. “I was wedded and it whetted my thirst until her womb started spilling out babies,” explains the Rake. “What can one do when one is a widower, shamefully saddled with three little pests?” He goes on to detail how he rid himself of each child, which is most effective when heard for the first time with the music.
Cut to Margaret, who in “The Abduction of Margaret” is being picked up on horseback by a man (the Rake?) with unsavory plans. The Forest Queen is willing to help the abductor, who will remove the threat of Margaret from her son, and is willing to help him cross the river.
“Annan Water” is one of the more rhythmically interesting tracks, and the wavering accordion chords throughout the song add a layer of anguish. Here, William is attempting to cross the river in order to get to Margaret. He pleads with the river that if he is let to pass, when he comes again the river “may have [his] precious bones in return.”
Margaret’s abductor tells her to give up hope in “Margaret in Captivity” as she cries out for her lover to save her. This is followed by the third reprise of the “Hazards of Love” theme “(Revenge!)” and the voices of the children murdered by the Rake return to haunt their father. The warped children’s voices recount their deaths and assure their father they are still around him. The music is disjointed, with a harpsichord that feels appropriately out of tune. It is the most sound effect-heavy track on the album. The tongue-in-cheek, carefree attitude with which the children sing is creepy, but satisfying.
The story ends with the fourth and final tune in the “Hazards of Love” sequence, “(The Drowned).” William has retrieved Margaret, and the water around them is slowly rising. They exchange wedding vows as their ghosts join the water. The song is slow, almost textbook “indie” style, to end the tale with a wistful attitude, complete with whammy-heavy guitars.
This is a landmark album, taking the concept album beyond anything it has been before. The format of the storytelling is such that it is beneficial to read through the lyrics on their own. The words by themselves are a completely different artistic medium when experienced on their own and add a layer to the listening.
There has not been such a satisfying album in years. Because of its musical and narrative structure, it asks the listener to return to it over and over, without becoming boring. It requires lots of thought and attention before it fully reveals itself, which is what the concept album is all about.