Accusations of pretension have followed The Decemberists around since the beginning of their career. More than anything else, this has been a reaction to the frequency with which the press has described them as "literary," among other things -- in fact, I remember my local alternative weekly printing the headline "The Decemberists: Smarter than You" sometime in 2004. To be fair, the band has also been pretty evidently self-aware, from Colin Meloy's arguably contrived vocal eccentricities to his lyrical subject matter; if he didn't outright ask for it to be called "Dickensian," he may as well have. And to be so frank about your thematic intentions as to name a song "My Mother Was a Chinese Trapeze Artist" is a little suspect.
Despite that, they could always be forgiven due to their playful approach. If you listened closely, it was clear that Meloy wasn't out to impress anybody. Yes, his lyrics were deliberate, but only on account of their themes being fun to sing about in a pop song. Subtlety was never a goal in the first place; these were caricatures, not intended as serious works of high prosaic merit.
This defense is rapidly weakening. Following up The Crane Wife, their uncannily humorless honeymoon with Capitol, they give us The Hazards of Love, their fifth LP. Meandering without pause through 17 tracks with reprises, recurring melodies, and a cast of nine players, the album describes a vague story about Margaret, portrayed by that girl from Lavender Diamond; some widower who kills his three kids and feels pretty great about it; and then there's a queen and some animals that I think turn into people or something?
This is the kind of indulgence that is more difficult to justify. It's the difference between playing Zelda and carpooling to your next LARP meetup. An upbeat pop song about two lovers in a trench during World War I? Endearing. A conceptual rock opera about fawns and thistle-down and queens? Pretentious. At least The Tain was only 18 minutes.
But pretension alone can't kill an album. Musically, The Hazards of Love is markedly more accomplished than The Crane Wife, which largely saw The Decemberists resting on their laurels in this regard. Its sheer diversity of styles gives this record a vitality that one couldn't have been blamed for thinking the band had lost.
"The Wanting Comes in Waves" sounds straight out of The Tain with dark, impish harpsichord, while its sibling song "Repaid" jarringly exhibits My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden belting out the hardest rock that The Decemberists may yet have been responsible for, albeit sultry in its sinisterness. "The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)," with its subdued guitar and Hammond organ, wouldn't be out of place on 2002's Castaways and Cutouts. Meanwhile, "The Rake's Song" proves with relief that Meloy has not entirely lost his sense of humor, its protagonist describing a resentment for his children so deep that he has to kill the ugly little fuckers, concluding, "And that’s how I came your humble narrator/ To be living so easy and free/ I expect that you think that I should be haunted/ But it never really bothers me/ All right!"
Nevertheless, the album is still frequently guilty of some of the shortcomings that have plagued the band since Picaresque. Far too often, the vocal melodies carrying the stories are half-baked and incoherent. The verses of "Margaret in Captivity," for instance, croon in gratingly arpeggiated swells some trashy poetry: "I have snipped your wingspan/ My precious captive swan/ Here all clipped of kickstand/ You spirit won’t last long." Any songwriter after a while will find themselves habitually returning to the same melodic patterns; this is the sound of Meloy positively flailing to escape his.
Where The Decemberists once charmed us by being feeble and meek, they have become bloated and overbearing, even disingenuous. But we haven't lost them entirely. Promisingly, Meloy has said, "I wanted to continue to experiment with songs with longer, extended themes. Doing The Hazards of Love took a lot out of me. And I’m definitely curious what will come out now that I’ve got this out of my system." I'm hoping somebody lends him another bike to get stolen.
2. The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)
3. A Bower Scene
4. Wont Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)
5. The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)
6. The Queen’s Approach
7. Isn’t it a Lovely Night?
8. The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid
9. An Interlude
10. The Rake’s Song
11. The Abduction of Margaret
12. The Queen’s Rebuke / The Crossing
13. Annan Water
14. Margaret in Captivity
15. The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)
16. The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise)
17. The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)