The new Decemberists album is out March 24. I've seen it described various places as both a rock opera and a concept album. Neither of those descriptors are necessarily pejorative (The Thermals - The Body the Blood the Machine comes to mind as an example of a sublime concept album), but they do raise a few red flags.
I've listened to The Hazards of Love, this newest Decemberists album, a couple times today and I wanted to be so much more impressed than I am. For an album about a girl being impregnated by a shapeshifting denizen of the woods (no joke) it is surprisingly inaccessible. I probably just haven't given it the time it deserves to appreciate the recurrent musical themes, lyrical subleties and literary flourishes. Like a Modenese balsamic, I'm sure this album needs some time to age and let its flavor mature. But so far it's no Crane Wife, which was no Picaresque.
That's not to say it's a bad album, or even a meh album. Lavender Diamond's Becky Stark and My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden contribute some beautiful vocals to the album and they both oppose Meloy very nicely. True, it has no standout singles but that's because it really is a cohesive whole more than 17 individual tracks. In this regard, it's similar to their stellar, 2004 effort, The Tain EP, a 5 song cycle based on a Scottish myth. The Hazards of Love is just not the magniloquent, yet captivating, whimsy-pop we'd come to love from the Decemberists.For that, you're better off listening to last year's Always the Bridesmaid EP which showcases five excellent little numbers (and a cloying Moldy Peaches cover best skipped) from the Decemberists of yore, before they went prog.
I don't like doing this, but I will admit that I was wrong, so very wrong, about this album. After spending the last 3 days listening to it over and over, I have been enthralled. I think going into this I was expecting a regular album full of singles and encapsulated songs that stand on their own. This album is certainly not that; in that way it is no Picaresque. I stand by my previous assertion that none of these songs, with the possible exception of The Rake's Song is all that catchy or impressive in isolation. But treated as one piece, The Hazards of Love is something very special.
This is the kind of record that makes me wish I knew more about music (theory, composition, etc.), because I currently find myself at a loss to explain exactly why it's so enjoyable to sit back in your chair for an hour and get lost in the soundscape. It's not the lyrics or the story. They're standard Meloy fare, full of deliciously obscure words and dated turns of phrase, but they lack much meat or emotional punch. I don't particularly care about what happens to Margaret, William and the queen. And it's not Meloy's crooning, which struck me as more nasal and, well, obnoxious than any of his previous recordings. Shara Worden and Becky Stark (especially Shara) both give beautiful performances, but even they don't account for the magnificence of the work. I guess I should stop trying to explain something I don't understand. I was never good at that. Anyway, hats off to The Decemberists for having the balls to do something so different, and pulling it off incredibly.
The Decemberists are taking the show on the road soon, playing a first set of The Hazards of Love in its entirety followed by a second set of older tunes. If you can't wait, they just played the album live at SXSW for NPR. You can stream the show here.