Image of The Hazard of Love album coverTheir style has been calling out for a complete concept album, and with The Hazards of Love they’ve delivered. Oh my how they’ve delivered. With this album The Deceberists have reached back into the primeval and produced a dark, Grimm-brothers-like tale of bewitching forests and star-crossed lovers.

Like any good rock opera this is an album that needs to be listened through in one whole piece. There are certainly songs that can stand on their own, but you’ll only be doing yourself a disservice if you shuffle through it. It really needs your complete attention to experience it fully.

The vocals are strong and vivid. Shara Worden manages to dominate in the role of a dark forest queen with a wild, yet regal ferocity. Her impact lingering long after her sections have past. The role of the maiden Margret is taken up by Becky Stark, and she brings an ethereal yet nurturing affair to her parts. Lastly Colin covers the multiple male roles with his trademark rustic, warbling style; grim as the rake, heartfelt as the protagonist, and warm as the narrator.

One of the joys in this album is listening to the interaction across the huge variety of instruments. Within single songs you’ll find unique combinations such as harpsichords conversing with heavily distorted electric guitars or a piano accordion mingling with a slide guitar.

Forming the basic unit of this album, each of the characters and environments have strong themes which recur throughout in a somewhat emergent, though careful curated way. The merging of these themes is done in such a way that gives the story a smooth transition from one situation to another. Examples of these themes abound, for instance The queen’s strong theme will introduce itself into a song as a portent of her future arrival.

There’s another good example of these recurring themes with the major river that forms a focal point near the end of the album. It’s theme is a hymnal style organ, such as you would hear in gospel music. In ‘The Crossing’ it’s combined with the queen’s powerful motif for a very heavy rock vibe. Then in the following song though it’s soothed by the protagonist’s plea, and slows to a relaxed, pastoral pace. Then lastly it appears as a figurative and literal undercurrent in the final ‘The Wanting Comes in Waves’.

I can’t say that I have fully untangled all the different themes, but there’s certainly no need for one to do so to fully enjoy this album. Part of the reason the themes work so well is because they come across in such a visceral manner. Each of them communicates effectively the ideas that underly it, so the feelings come through in a natural way.

Given all this diversity there is careful attention to not going overboard in any single song. The songs are artfully layered and aren’t crowded with too much different media.

With the story playing such a heavy part in this album none of this would be possible without Colin’s unparalleled lyricism. An extensive vocabulary and outstanding choice of phrasing bring you into his world like few other writers are able to. Just like with the different themes, his choice of words and their delivery convey the spirit and intention deep within each song.

I think I could probably spend an age describing all the outstanding things about this album, but to end I want to mention the rhythm. All the layering, themes, and lyrical qualities are for naught if the rhythm can’t effect you, and fortunately, there’s no need to worry on that front. This is the Decemberists at their best in that regard; managing to keep it fresh throughout. With a lot of the commonalities coming from the instrumental themes they were freed from the need to maintain a overarching rhythmical balance, and they’ve used that keep you on your toes with lots of gorgeous movement and mixed pacing. By changing the staging and layering of the different themes they are able to effectively move between slower and more intense sections.

This was without a doubt my album of the year for 2009. Individually none of the songs on the album would make it into a top ten list, but taken as a whole it’s an absolute epic.

10/10

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