the_hazards_of_love_cover__resized_1The term “rock opera”, over the last decade or so, has garnered a sort of negative connotation to it. It is usually seen as a gimmick when a band wants to stretch a narrative over the course of an entire album. Against all this though, the Decemberists, the beloved folk group from Portland, have decided to formulate a rock opera of their own, entitled The Hazards of Love. Of course, when you’re a band like the Decemberists, an opera only seems logical.

The Decemberists have always been a little left of center when compared with a lot of indie bands. Their lyrical content has consisted of everything from sea shanties to mini-epics, with references to the days of yore and word usage that can make even the most word savvy person grab a dictionary. The band’s music has always been varied to say the least, utilizing all sorts of instruments from stand up bass to the harp. Many of their songs have multiple progressions, and often conjured up images that only help the lyrics to come alive. Few have pulled off this kind of feat as gracefully and consistently as the Decemberists have across their first four albums. As a result, they have achieved a great amount of success in independent circles, while still somehow avoiding the mainstream’s conscious. For The Hazards of Love, the Decemberists decided to expand upon their strengths into an hour long experience; one that is best enjoyed from start to finish in one listening.

The main players in The Hazards of Love are William (the son of the Queen), Margaret, the Queen herself, and an immoral man simply known as the Rake. I will not disclose any details of the story, save for the fact that William and Margaret are in love and that the queen is not too excited about it. While it may sound simple on the surface, the story has enough twists and turns to keep the listener engaged, and the characters are developed with stories to accompany their character. Decemberists front man, Colin Meloy, uses his English degree to its full extent, making each of these characters struggles and longings come alive with the use of his words and his voice.

As an overall narrative, The Hazards of Love is a real winner. Each song feels as though it is in some way contributing to overarching story line, and the progression is very spot on. “Won’t Wait for Love” introduces the notion that William and Margaret have a deep affection for each other, and “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?” expands upon this. We are first introduced to the conflict in “The Waiting Comes in Waves/Repaid”; perhaps one of the best tracks on the album, and the story continues to build. From there on out, we encounter a rake who has murdered his three children, his kidnapping of Margaret, and William’s heartache and longing for his now missing love. Other twists, turns and various subtleties can only be brought to life by thoroughly reading the liner notes.

Of course, one can enjoy this album on its own merits, as there are several standout tracks that can be added to the Decemberists cannon of great tunes. “The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)” contains Meloy’s brilliant imagery, and “The Rake’s Song” introduces us to the deranged individual with an almost-too-detailed account of his misdeeds. Becky Stark (of the group Lavender Diamond) does a great job as Margaret, as is evident on “Won’t Wait for Love” and her subsequent duets with William, who, along with the Rake, are played by Meloy. However, Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond) delivers a performance as the Queen that will not soon be forgotten. Her voice dominates on “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” and “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing”.  Almost all of the songs on the album can stand alone, without requiring an understanding of the story.

Musically, the Hazards of Love contains some slight departures for the Decemberists, while still utilizing all of the elements that won fans over in the first place. By departure, I mean that the guitars are heavier in some spots than on any of their other albums. However, many of the instruments that have graced other Decemberists albums are present and accounted for, with violins, accordions, and banjos aplenty. Also, the band’s musical shifts, or in other words their more “progressive” moments, do many of the songs well. This is especially evident when the music shifts in “The Waiting Comes in Waves/Repaid” to illustrate the dichotomy between William and his mother, the Queen. The Decemberists have always been very talented musicians, and it is evident from the first note on.

Overall, the Decemberists have avoided the potential pitfalls of creating a rock opera and have come away with something truly remarkable. While the narrative and wordplay will satisfy theater geeks and those who want the intended experience of the album, The Hazards of Love has enough great songs to standout as an album that can be enjoyed outside of a literary context. This was well worth the two and a half year wait, as the Decemberists continue to show why they are one of the most consistent bands making music today.