For once I am ahead of the game, or at least only days as opposed to months behind it, thanks to my awareness of the release of The Decemberists‘ new album The Hazards of Love on Monday. Variously and inaccurately described as a “Rock opera” or some such misnomer, the record couldn’t be more different in many respects from their previous releases.
The Prelude (thankfully nothing to do with Wordsworth on this occasion) racks up expectations equal to those which would be experienced if Sofia Coppola were to imbue a version of Romeo and Juliet with characteristic soft-lighting and floral symbolism, only to tread a dangerously fine line between that and the soundtrack to an extra-terrestrial invasion.
‘The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)’ appears to set the scene (at least lyrically) firmly within Elizabethan pastoral literary traditions, roving through the forest brim full of Ovidian myth and wanton metaphors. A Bower Scene necessarily ensues with romping bass and suspicious impregnation to match. ‘Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)’ deserves the benefit of the doubt with regard to the Elizabethan punning on “want” as both lack and desire, despite the unfortunate parallel of the Grange Hill soundtrack in the piano part. The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All) sees a slightly more tender though insensitive bedding of “our heroine” (presumably the harmonies indicate this to be with her true love) and the song soars to a climax. The discordant strings signal ‘The Queen’s Approach’ and ominous presence in the manner of a tuneless lute. Rather bizarrely, a transition which would undoubtedly displease the Neoclassicists, ‘Isn’t It a Lovely Night’ is suddenly riddled with Italianate influence more suited to a ‘Cornetto’ advertisement or adaptation of Mary Poppins in which the streets are peopled with Venetian straw hats, gondolas, and striped blazers. Twee harmonies and the misplaced swoon of a slide guitar thinly veil the bawdiness of the discussion regarding the ‘little deaths’. ‘The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid’ is, quite frankly, a little ridiculous, fusing Arcade Fire wailing, and guitar riffs ordinarily the territory of the White Stripes in what I am only able to depict as Anya’s bunny rant from Buffy the Vampire Slayer the Musical meets Shirley Bassey in Jesus Christ Superstar.
‘An Interlude’ is very pleasant.
‘The Rake’s Song’ is a little bit ‘The Kid’s Are Alright’ apart from the wholly inexplicable children’s choir. ‘The Abduction of Margaret’ isn’t overly surprising, given the context and the distinct Ovidian allusions, particularly the Diana/Venus narrative. ‘The Queen’s Rebuke/the crossing’ continues with the Elizabethan metatheatricality with the Queen’s assertion that her ‘head is the canopy high’, which is couched in a forest of 70s rock. ‘Annan Water’ flows along with eddying mandolin, banjo, and acoustic guitar, and the narrative shifts to ‘Margaret in Captivity’ and ‘The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)’ with the trippy return of the Village of the Damned chorus. ‘The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise)’ idles like a Shakespearean clown scene. ‘The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)’ , rather appropriately ushers in the ‘long last rush of air’ as the ‘rushing waves’ bear witness to Margaret’s wedding vows and violin-ridden consummation.
‘These hazards of love never more will trouble us’, apparently, but they will certainly be regularly heard.