Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pretty Whistles Meet Prog Rock: The Hazards of Love

Review and Discussion: The Hazards of Love

Is it a good sign that the Decemberists' latest album takes such a long time to digest? I think yes, even though it's more than a little daunting at first. There are characters to follow, plot lines to keep track of, even literary devices that you never thought you'd see again after freshman English.

And in many ways, although it's far different in character from most of the Decemberists' earlier works, it's exactly the logical place for them to have gone next. For those fans that think the prog-metal vibe is new, I'd encourage a listen to the 2004 EP The Tain, based off the Celtic epic Tain bo Cuailnge. The good news is that you don't have to be able to pronounce that to enjoy retelling of the story, which essentially describes a bunch of Irishmen fighting over a cow.

Even those more recently converted to the Decemberists' fanbase might see strains of works they know. The band's most recent recording, The Crane Wife, has moments of Hazards-like character throughout, particularly in the three-in-one song cycle "The Island".

Where "The Island" was loosely, maybe only thematically, connected, Hazards has all the internal consistency you'd ever want or need from a rock album. And where The Tain was content to borrow a mythology, albeit an obscure one, Hazards jumps right in an makes up its own. The result is something that seems more like it ought to be on Broadway than a CD.

In other words, we've got ourselves a rock opera.

A rather heated debate seems to be focusing around whether you can enjoy this as individual songs, or whether you need to take it holistically and evaluate the entire album, and I'm coming down on the side of "entire album". The Decemberists encourage it too, it seems, with the exclusive use of gapless playback: for any given song, while the "during" might be the most important part, the "before" and the "after" are critical too. That's not to say you'll get nothing out of listening to one song at a time, for example if one comes up randomly in shuffle mode, but it's a lot mroe enjoyable to press play at the beginning of track 1 and not touch anything until the end an hour later.

There's good reason for that. Yes, plot and characters are part of it, but there are some impressively-crafted themes, foreshadowing, irony, and witticisms that you might miss given only a song or two. And you'll want to appreciate them.

All of this literary business is fine and good, but what about the music? Is the album worth listening to? Is it what we've come to expect from the Decemberists? Mostly yes. There's a much wider variety that you might have gotten on, say, Her Majesty. And at first, it may seem completely off the mark from what we might have expected, but with a closer examination, it's completely understandable. That's exactly the sort of direction that's nice for a band to head in once they've gotten to the point of five full length albums.

My comments on the album, in generally chronological order.

The album starts with an instrumental "Prelude"--think of it like something that would play as the opening credits roll and we see gorgeous, sweeping shots of the Queen's domain and the Annan Water. The real action starts with "The Hazards of Love 1", with the curious subtitle "The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone". Literally, that's saying "if you’re caught in a prickly plant, it doesn’t matter how nice a sound you make, it won’t disentangle you." More abstractly, "if you go about a problem the wrong way, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you won’t solve it." That's actually a major theme of the album, though we hardly recognize it as that at the very beginning.

There's a male voice yelling something between "The Hazards of Love 1" and "A Bower Scene", but I can't figure out what it's saying or who it is. Could it be Margaret's "irascible blackguard of a father"?

One of the album's biggest successes is its use of voicing to distinguish the characters. Margaret's soprano, which we first hear in "Won't Want For Love", the Queen's alto (which we hear later on), and William's tenor are always in about the same range, and though I might have liked a baritone for one of the major male characters, it makes it very easy to distinguish whose point of view we're hearing without having to see the characters.

This successful character distinction isn't just in the voices--there's also some nice leitmotif in the background music. The few seconds of banjo in "The Queen's Approach" foreshadows her driving metal theme in "Repaid" and "The Queen's Rebuke".

"Won't Want For Love" is my favorite track on the album. Given my love of indie bands with soprano girl singers, this probably isn't too shocking.

"The Hazards of Love II" and "Isn't It A Lovely Night?" are both very nice songs, but they're too close together on the album. It makes sense in the narrative why they are where they are, but with every other pair of songs marking a stylistic shift, it seems odd to have the two most down-tempo, emotional songs next to each other.

Two songs that do follow each other are "Isn't It A Lovely Night?" and "The Wanting Comes In Waves", which feature an interesting major/minor inversion. "Waves" is not exactly a reprise of "Lovely Night"--there are a few true reprises later on--but it sounds sort of similar. Speaking of "The Wanting Comes in Waves", being sort of a music theorist, it bothers me that I can't figure out what the meter is in that song. There's a lot of weird rest and upbeat business, that's for sure.

"Repaid", the second half of "The Wanting Comes in Waves", sets up the backstory between William and the Queen, though it's not fully explained until "The Queen's Rebuke" later in the story. That's excellent storytelling, something that you'd see in a real musical or opera. And "Repaid" is an excellent cliffhanger to the intermission; the action picks up an indeterminate amount of time later without having to give the details of what happened in between. It sets up the second half of the album--call it "Act II"--well.

Apart from being a terrible person, the Rake--or more specifically his song--has the most clever foreshadowing and irony in the album. The Rake expects that we'd think he'd be "haunted" by his despicable actions. That's meant figuratively enough, until he actually is haunted by the ghosts of his dead children toward the end. And he "reckons his curse" is having those children, but eventually they'll literally curse him, not just offend him with their presence.

"The Wanting Comes in Waves" is formally called a reprise when it's repeated at the end of the album, but "The Abduction of Margaret" is a also reprise of "A Bower Scene", and "Margaret in Captivity" is a reprise of "The Hazards of Love 1". Both of these juxtapose willing vs. unwilling love. In "A Bower Scene", Margaret "withdraws to the taiga"; in "Abduction", she "falls prey to her abductor". "Margaret in Captivity" is a whole lot worse: "The Hazards of Love 1" described her quite amicable meeting with William, while "Captivity" describes her rape in the Rake's fortress.

"The Queen's Rebuke" is really cool, and I love the narrative/mythological role it plays, but I'm not crazy about the super-distorted guitar solo in the middle of it. One of the things that makes it so important is that it describes a limit to the Queen's power. She has a way around the Annan Water--allowing the Rake to fly over it--but even she can't make the water less "wild".

Where's the climax of this story? I tend to think it's "The Crossing", where I imagine the Rake (helped along by the Queen's fell forest magics) flying over the Annan Water and William arriving just too late to do anything about it. William knows that Margaret is somewhere across the water, but does he actually know she's in the Rake's fortress? I don't really think so; instead, I see Margaret escaping from the fortress and her and William reuniting.

I see the Annan Water as a symbol of both separation and of powerlessness versus fate and nature. Both songs that feature the Annan ("Annan Water" and "The Hazards of Love 4") switch to acoustic and mention lyrics like "rolling only where [the river] takes us". Neither creature of the forest--William or his mother--can best the Annan, though they both find their ways around it. (William's gets him in a bit more trouble.)

How does Margaret escape? With the help of the ghost children, of course. Some people have advanced the theory that the children aren't meant to represent Charlotte, Dawn, and Isaiah, but I don't but that for a second. The first child, a girl, specifically mentions getting fed flowers (ie, foxglove); the second, another girl, mentions drowning; and the third, a boy, mentions getting into a fight. Somehow, they distract the Rake for long enough to get Margaret out. Ghostly powers, or something.

Finally, reunited though they are, William and Margaret must face the music. William is at a lose-lose: he's promised both the Annan Water and his mother his life. And I think for that reason, William was completely fine with making his deal with the Annan. Better dead with his Margaret than alive but completely in his mother's grasp, right?

If "the prettiest whistles" are one of the themes of the story, what's the other? It's a lot more direct: "these hazards of love". For Margaret (toward William), it’s being put in the position of caring for a strange beast-creature, leading to her being outcasted then captured ("The Hazards of Love 1"). For the Queen (toward William), it’s jealousy ("Hazards 2", when she sees how much William loves Margaret). For the Rake (toward his bride), it’s children, who then haunt him ("Hazards 3"). And for William (toward Margaret), it’s the deals he has to make with his mother and the Annan Water, which lead to his death ("Hazards 4").

I don't think this album tops Wincing the Night Away, and I don't know if anything will ever top The Everglow. But I like it a whole lot. And it's one that I can see myself becoming fiercely protective of. There's people out there who don't like it, who give it bad reviews, who call the prog/metal flavor "out of place", who see a rock opera these days as "indulgent".

They're wrong. They're boorish. And they wouldn't know good storytelling if it hit them in the ear. The Hazards of Love is something we've seen a hundred times, but the Decemberists have made it relevant and excellent.

Currently listening: "Futures", Jimmy Eat World


Anonymous said...

Margaret and William actually suicide because William can't stay with his mother and Margaret can't live without him. Also, the lyric is: "What irascible black bart, is the father", and the scream is because of some satanist barging into The Decemberists' studio just as they were finishing The Hazards of Love 1.

Anonymous said...

nice post. I would love to follow you on twitter.