Rantings, reviews and lists from a person who structures half his life around obsessing over music.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love (2009)

4.5 ★/9.0 - 9.9

Now this is the way that artists should do things; an organic evolution with a constant slope and none of that inconsistent ducking and playing around with genres and style variations that almost every band seems to go through at some point in their career. The Decemberists are too professional for that. They had been hinting at something like Hazards of Love for almost a decade, with each new chapter in their discography taking things slightly deeper, at a pace of change that has been so gradual and delicate that it hardly feels like there's been a change at all. The move from their early-period Neutral Milk Hotel-isms to the multi-suite songs of their mid-period career never once felt self-conscious, and their next leap into straight-ahead prog on The Tain and The Crane Wife was equally level-headed. Every step felt like a goal, and the following step forward would only serve to reveal the last stage as transitional. But now we finally arrive at an end-point - A full length, full fledged Rock Opera. Of course, there still might be something beyond this. Perhaps this is just yet another a step to something even bigger (if such a beast of an album is even possible). But for now that hardly matters, because the resulting LP is a joy to listen to. The band was once just sitting in the shadow of Jeff Magnum's fully realized folk project, but now they've stepped out of it and offered a sprawling near-masterpiece of their own, that even stands toe to toe with In The Aeroplane Over The Sea at a handful of moments.

Those moments include the beautiful title track, the jagged and chilling lead single, "The Rake Song", which describes, in horrifying detail, mass infanticide, and the beautifully grandioise finger picking of "Margaret in Captivity". More brilliance crops up in "Won't Want For Love", "Repaid" and "The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing", which all take sensational cues from Black Sabbath, lurching and overflowing with ravaged distortion that perfectly matches the anger of Meloy's various characters at key moments, and both versions of "The Wanting Comes In Waves," housing one of the album's greatest hooks (second only to the spine-tingling chorus of the passionate and fiery "Annan Water").

But before the end of this review, apologies must be made for the NMH references, because it's a tad misleading. There's nothing "indie" about The Hazards of Love. This is pure Prog, without any compromises, and when it does give in, as on the conventional structure and corny ending of the last track, the album falters. The best thing about Colin Meloy's songwriting is how its simplicity and immediacy allows all the complimentary jamming, charming instrumentation and storytelling prowess to come naturally, and the first 16 tracks deliver that in spades, creating a fun catalog of Now That's What I Call 70's Prog that deserves to be replayed and memorized note by note, line by line, like all the best Rock Operas.

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