Decemberists albums don’t get much more Decemberists-y than The Hazards Of Love, an hourlong song-suite about a pregnant lady who’s questing to find her shape-shifting lover when she’s set upon by a jealous forest queen and an unconscionable rake. It’s like bandleader Colin Meloy is begging to be mocked. Or, more likely, that he doesn’t much care about any snickering from the legions of folks who find The Decemberists faintly ridiculous. The Decemberists are now—and ever shall be—the kind of band that records rock operas about medieval rape victims. Wanna make something of it?
The real surprise of The Hazards Of Love is how well it works as a straight-up rock album. Aside from a half-silent “Prelude” and a couple of shrill stompers (“The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid” and “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing”), these songs work fine out of context. Melodic themes repeat, and the appearance of guest vocalists Becky Stark and Shara Worden may momentarily confuse the diehards, but the individual pieces of Meloy’s story are fairly self-contained, such that nearly any random track on The Hazards Of Love conveys the overarching idea of a fallible heroine plagued by insatiable villains.
Meloy could stand to lighten up a little. Even though he’s built a career on songs about archaic child-murder and the like, The Decemberists’ earlier albums featured more moments of joy and humor. Or maybe Meloy’s wit is getting wryer. The “here’s how I offed my progeny” anthem “The Rake’s Song” is so specific in its grotesquery that it becomes as comic as it is frightening, while “The Hazards Of Love 4 (The Drowned)” is a closing elegy that’s simultaneously over the top and genuinely moving. It leaves listeners with the sense of weights lifting, spirits ascending, and rock bands doing what they were born to do.