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By (May 1, 2009) No Comment

The Hazards of Love

The Decemberists
Capitol Records, 2009

The body count rises steadily with each new album the erudite, Portland-based Decemberists has released. Their first EP, Five Songs, is relatively benign, chronicling in its “Apology Song” the lamentable demise of a beloved borrowed bicycle. The 2002 album Castaways and Cutouts begins with the death in childhood of one Leslie Anne Levine, whose mother birthed her “in a dry ravine…far too soon / Born at nine and dead at noon.” That album’s disturbing “Cautionary Tale” is also requisitely bleak, taunting the listener with the story of “a place your mother goes when everybody else is soundly sleeping” – that is, down to the docks where she whores herself to rough sailors money to put food on the table. “So be kind to your mother,” advises the narrator, “though she may seem an awful bother, / And the next time she tries to feed you collard greens, / Remember what she does when you’re asleep.”

Her Majesty the Decemberists, released in 2003, opens with a cast of sailors singing a chantey for the Arethusa, in which they advise the townsfolk to tell their daughters “not to walk the streets alone tonight” lest they fall victim to the shipmen. Later the crew ends up in South Australia where, though the “weather’s warm there, the natives nubile,” if you listen closely enough,

You can hear the footsteps in the cross trees,
The ghosts of sailors past,
Their spectral bodies
Clinging to the shrouds.

Surely the Arethusa’s own crew will enjoy a happier fate? The song ends there, so the listener is simply left to wonder. Elsewhere on the album, “The Bachelor and the Bride” laments the death of that couple’s daughter, bombs explode over the trenches in “The Soldiering Life,” and a savvy chimbley sweep seduces a widow who tells him “I’ve not been swept since the day my husband died.”

Picaresque and its collection of b-sides Picaresqueties (both 2005) give us lovers committing suicide in “We Both Go Down Together,” two more dead lovers in “Eli the Barrow Boy,” yet another dead lover in “My Own True Love (Lost at Sea),” no less than sixteen cannibalized military wives, a dead mother whose son traps himself and his nemesis in the belly of a whale in “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” and several lepers and still one more drowned lover in “Constantinople.” All that and a quiet, pretty song about pigeons, doing crosswords, and drowning. Makes the first two albums look practically peachy by comparison, doesn’t it?

Onwards, then, to 2006’s superlative Crane Wife. There’s plenty of blood to go round in the title track (broken, as it is, into three parts). “The Island” details first a rape, albeit in rather clunky verse:

She cursed, she shivered,
She cried for mercy.
“My gold and silver,
“If thou will release me.”

I’ll take no gold, miss, [the response of the attacker]
I’ll take no silver
I’ll take those sweet lips
And thou wilt deliver.

And then the disposal of the body:

I will deck your eyelids
With dimes laid on your eyes
Lay you close to water
Green your grave will rise.

Go to sleep now, little ugly,
Go to sleep now, you little fool.
Forty winking in the belfry
You’ll not feel the drowning.

“Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)” is a lovely duet sung by a pregnant sweetheart and her now-dead lover, who classily asks her if she’s seen “all the dead of Manassas / All the bellies and the bones and the bile.” (No, you idiot, she tells him, “I lingered here with the blankets barren / And my own belly big with child.” Thanks so much for heading off to the wars.) Another significant other dies in “O Valencia,” when, in the style of fair Verona, two feuding families accidentally kill the girl; her lover drives off with her body while her blood is “still warm on the ground,” swearing to the stars that he’ll “burn this whole city down.” “When the War Came” is about as much a lark as you’d expect it to be: the weakest song on the album, it’s a long and boring dirge with the requisite military casualties. The “Shankhill Butchers” should, by dint of its title alone, let you know what to expect. Not even the breezy “Summersong” is exempt from “all the dead sailors / Slowly slipping to sleep.”

(This is to say nothing of the b-sides to that album, which feature stillborn children, a lover who laments “The Day I Knew You’d Not Come Back,” and, my personal favorite, the eerily cheery “Culling of the Fold,” the chorus of which runs,

Ply her heart with gold and silver,
Take your sweetheart down to the river.
Dash her on the paving stones.
It may break your heart to break her bones,
But someone’s got to do the culling of the fold.)

But what can this mounting pile of corpses really do for the listener? The list of songs, as I’ve compiled it here, seems more than slightly cheeky, even bumptious, and surely that’s a part of what the band’s frontman, singer/songwriter Colin Meloy, has in mind. Yet beneath the shanties and ballads they seek to imitate, manipulate, and play upon, there runs a thread of loneliness. The three titular tracks of Crane Wife, for example, recount a Japanese folk tale in which a man finds and heals a wounded crane, who returns to him as a woman (“All star-bright and tongue-tied”); they marry, he forces to her weave and she, exhausted, begins to spill blood into the cloth before she flies off. The man watches her go away, lamenting, “There’s a bend in the wind and it rakes at my heart / There is blood in the thread and it rakes at my heart,” and first the it rakes at my heart, and then the my heart, is repeated over swelling, miserable chords, making an echo chamber of loss. While blood and fontanel (the latter appearing in suspect line, to rhyme with “keening bell”) feature prominently in this tale, the end of it is nonetheless an encounter with a deep and abiding grief.

Crane Wife offered the most explicit example of such grief to that point; a swirling sort of sadness creeps into – or is perhaps the very basis of – the other albums in isolated moments of spooky beauty, such as the song “Red Right Ankle,” which seems at first intended to console someone with a broken ankle, but turns out to be a touching meditation on those loved and lost. True, the Decemberists can muck about with ballads and shanties to great effect – but something else, on each album, has taken hold, and made their efforts more meaningful and less fleeting than a simple jaunt into morbid frivolity.

Enter, then, The Hazards of Love, the Decemberists’ latest offering. It ought to be little surprise that, through the course of the album, corpses accumulate, drownings ensue, there are beatings and poisonings aplenty, and the poor heroine suffers abduction, abuse, rift, defiling, wresting and wrecking. The horrors abound and permeate the album with a totality unparalleled by the band’s previous work, for where earlier, characters did seem to die in dismaying numbers, their demise was not the ultimate focus of the music: there was more emphasis on high seas adventures, folklore, dreams, stories, the summery haze of youth, the colors of landscapes, and hatred of certain Californian metropolises. Not that these things are lacking here (well, perhaps a critique of Los Angeles is too subtle to be obvious), but they are subsumed in the album’s preoccupation with impending disaster – but, equally, its preoccupation with enduring love.

Much has been made by critics of the fact that this latest offering is a concept album – its songs cohere into a story vaguely Arthurian and Gothic by turns, about the shape-shifting William and his love for young Margaret, some interference by William’s adopted mother and a baddie known as the Rake, and the subsequent drowning deaths of the two lovers. In interviews Meloy has mentioned that he had originally planned to stage The Hazards of Love as some form of rock opera; though the Decemberists opted to record, rather than perform, they did debut the album live at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. It is informative to hear it live (the link is here) – indeed, upon multiple listenings, the album seems designed for live performance. This is not to say that the album doesn’t hold together – it does, concept and all. But a live performance lends something more immediate to the concept, the way listening to a folktale is often more memorable than reading one.

What, though, is the concept?

It seems to be three-fold, and it inevitably builds on themes of previous albums. The deaths of William, Margaret, the Rake, his wife, and all four of his children – that’s everybody mentioned on the album except William’s mother – make The Hazards of Love a culmination of the accumulated morbidity on other Decemberists albums. But this album also marks the final stage of development of two other important strains of the Decemberists’ self-fashioning: their fascination with extended progressive-rock musical narrative, and their concern with the ultimate (hopeful) union of lovers otherwise destined to be tempest-tossed and star-crossed. The themes have been introduced with 2004’s The Tain and “The Island,” along with most of the fatal, fated stories of lovers I mentioned above.

Songs on The Hazards of Love flow seamlessly into one another, while strains of melody and guitar licks are reprised, and words and phrases resurface in disparate parts of the soundscape. Most notable of the repeated phrases is the title of the album, which appears in four tracks, and which moves from the stage-setting (“The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone” – reading the name of that track the first time, I cringed a bit at its preciousness, but as a lyric, weirdly, it works), to the triumphant (“Wager All”), to the gleefully nasty (“Revenge!”), to the otherworldly, sad, and beautiful (“The Drowned”), with the full range of accompanying melodic emotions. And the music itself wanders from synth-pop-operatic (the opening “Prelude”) to folk ballad (“The Prettiest Whistles…”) to serious prog rock (see below), and back, poignantly, to the folk ballad. That is to say, there are guitars, and banjos, and Wurlitzers – but in equal measure there are mean basses and meaner percussion sections. The Hazards of Love is, for the Decemberists, a new musical beast: it melds their shanty affinities with their later inclinations towards harder rock, and comes up with something at once bold and lovely.

“Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)”

In “The Prettiest Whistles,” Margaret rides out past Offa’s Wall (a reference to the eighth-century Clawdd Offa, a defensive dyke running along part of the modern border between England and Wales) and stumbles into a taiga, where there lies “a white and wounded fawn.” In Arthurian tradition, the appearance of harts, hinds, and fawns – particularly white ones – often marks the beginning of some great (mis)adventure. Margaret would be best advised to turn back home… But she, “being full of charity, / A credit to her sex,” opts to help the beast, who then turns into William (his mother, we later discover, “gave him the form of a fawn to inhabit by day”). The two make love, then Margaret returns home, only to discover that she is pregnant – so she does the reasonable thing (reasonable despite having recently shagged Bambi) and ventures back into the taiga in search of William.

Meloy sings the part of the nameless narrator of “The Prettiest Whistles” as well as the part of William, while Becky Stark (of the band Lavender Diamond) makes a sweet, innocent Margaret. She is particularly good in the album’s fourth track, “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga),” which chronicles her search for William:

And all this stirring inside my belly
Won’t quell my want for love
And I may swoon from all this swelling
But I won’t want for love

Stark’s voice can get a bit thin at times, and a bit saccharine, as in the duet “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?” where the lovers recall, prettily albeit tongue-in-cheek, that “here we died our little deaths / And we were left to catch our breaths / So swiftly lifting from our chests.” This is a cutely tongue-tying lyric, but it’s also charmingly earnest, if Meloy’s intonation here is anything to go by. Meloy, whose voice has gotten quite pleasantly mellow since his earlier, skinnier, more indie-rockish days, indulges in a fine bit of linguistic acrobatics in this song: “Wasn’t it a lovely breeze / That swept the leaves of arbor eaves / And bent to brush our blushing knees?” (Oddly, this song also marks the last mention of the lovers’ baby – from this point on, nothing is said of it or its fate or, indeed, whether Margaret ever manages to give birth to it.)

Neither Stark nor Meloy, however, is quite a match for the incomparable Shara Worden, otherwise the lead singer of My Brightest Diamond, who appears as William’s adopted mother, the Queen (of, apparently, the forest), amid snarls of electric guitar and a thumping, rather deliciously un-Decemberists bass beat. She and William argue about his indiscretion with Margaret; his pleas, couched in halting harpsichord, come off pitifully against Worden’s impressive howls.

Mother I can hear your footfall now
A soft disturbance in the deadfall how
It precedes you like a black smoke pall
Still the wanting comes in waves

And you delivered me from danger, then
Pulled my cradle from the reedy glen
Swore to save me from the world of men
Still the wanting comes in waves

How I made you
I wrought you
I pulled you
From ore I labored you
From cancer I cradled you

And now: this is how I am repaid?
This is how I am repaid?

(When I have children, and when they’ve misbehaved, I am totally going to play them this song.)

They strike a deal: he’ll enjoy this one evening with Margaret before returning home to the Queen.

A soft instrumental “Interlude” follows as the lovers sleep. Meloy plays the acoustic guitar, the Decemberists jack-of-all-trades Chris Funk plays the bouzouki, and Robyn Hitchcock (like Stark and Worden, on loan from his label) steps in for some electric guitar. Hitchcock has long been a hero of Meloy’s: the Decemberists have covered several of his songs in live performance, and in exchange for his appearance on The Hazards of Love, Meloy has been a guest vocalist on Hitchcock’s latest album, Goodnight Oslo.

Thus the album’s pace is spot-on: we move seamlessly from synthy-intro to folk-ballad set-up to an early jab at hard rock, to another lovely ballad, to more hard rock, all at a perfect speed. It isn’t boring, it doesn’t linger overlong on sentiment, it simply discloses its melody or quirky rhyme or subtle ache, or whatever it is, before flitting on to other grounds. The overall effect is, musically, a little bumpy – but that makes the experience of listening all the more real, all the more honest. I often find myself liking best the music that is coming apart at the seams; while The Hazards of Love is finely produced (save for the weirdly under-sung and over-instrumentalized “Rake’s Song”) what is ultimately endearing is its rocky inheritance, its attempt to meld multiple musical genres together beneath the umbrella of lasting love. You often get the feeling that Meloy and his band are lost in a forest without a guide – but that, at least, they are enjoying the moments they spend beyond the borders from the real world, before having to surrender either to romantic literary death or grudging commercialism.

Alas, but the peace is so quickly broken! Enter the Rake, whose song comprises the first (and likely only) single from the album, and who has a cheerful “All right, all right, all right!” as his chorus. Also voiced by Meloy, the Rake dispassionately recounts his marriage (“I was wedded and it whetted my thirst”) at age 21 and the subsequent “spilling out” of babies from the womb of his wife. “Only then,” he tells us, “did I reckon my curse.” The fourth child, Myfanwy, “died on delivery / Mercifully taking her mother along,” so now the Rake is “shamefully saddled with three little pests,” Isaiah, Charlotte, and Dawn. Now what?

“The Rake’s Song” (video by some gallant Youtuber)

All that I wanted was the freedom of a new life
So my burden I began to divest

All right, all right, all right!

Charlotte I buried after feeding her foxglove
Dawn was easy: she was drowned in the bath
Isaiah fought but was easily bested
Burned his body for incurring my wrath

All right, all right, all right! “I expect that you think that I should be haunted,” says the Rake, rather ominously, “but it never really bothered me.” He shall rue those words, but not until the Queen orders him to abduct Margaret and flies the two across the River Annan.

In “Annan Water,” William stands on the shore and begs the waters to slow so he can cross. The harrowed verses are layered over frantic acoustic guitar, mandolin, and dulcimer, though the chorus comes when the beats part to admit Jenny Conlee’s lovely, solemn Hammond organ:

But if you calm and let me pass
You may render me a wreck when I come back

So calm you waves and cease your churn
And you may have my precious bones on my return

While he waits for that to happen, the Rake abuses Margaret – but then, in the glorious “Revenge!” back come the ghosts of his children! “But father, don’t you fear,” sings Charlotte, “your children all are here / Singing: O the hazards of love!” Dawn and Isaiah have their say, as well; presumably, now they do both bother and haunt the Rake, allowing William to rescue Margaret and the two to attempt a return, only to become first wed then wet in “The Drowned.”

Margaret, array the rocks around the hole before we’re sinking
A million stones, a million bones, a million holes within the chinking

And painting rings around your eyes, these peppered holes
So filled with crying
A whisper-weight upon the tattered down where you and I
Were lying

So tell me now, O tell me this: a river’s son, a forest’s daughter
A willow wand, a will-o-wisp, our ghosts will wander all of the water

The Decemberists are invariably labeled as “hyper-literate” (see: every review ever of every one of their albums) for their customary wordplay and casual use of obscure words, ideas, and turns of phrase. William and Margaret, for example, opt to stay in bed “’til the corncrake crows” (which could leave them abed for an awful long time, since crowing is not something corncrakes do). “Do you think The Decemberists have ever seen a corncrake?” asked one of my friends. “I mean, they’re often thought of in poetic traditions as these solemn, portentous creatures, but still….” (My friend is a professor of literature.) It’s a fair question, but the response would be that Meloy probably hasn’t seen a crane wife either; all of this imagery, whether real or imagined, find their source in the recondite mythology of sagas and ballads from which Meloy has borrowed from, blended, and infused with his own real feeling.

But the lit-major-wetdream vocabulary can often obscure what’s really beautiful about the songs. Take, for example, the passages from Crane Wife’s “The Island” I quoted above. “Thou” and “thou wilt” just come off feeling wrong in the context, completely jarring when the rest of the song (never mind the rest of the album) at least adheres to contemporary pronouns. There’s a smattering of “thous” on The Hazards of Love, too, and they don’t really fit, either.

Corncrakes and irascible blackguards aside, though, the loveliest bits are sometimes the simplest. The most transcendent moment on The Hazards of Love comes when William admits to his mother that “the wanting comes in waves.” The object of the wanting is elided: is it Margaret, is it a normal life, is it love, is it the hazards of love? Or does the wanting build and build until it subsumes all? Are coming waves waves of passion, or do they allude to the watery deaths of the lovers? The backing vocals and rising tide of accompanying music only extend the wanting; they provide no answers, but at the same time, no answers really seem asked for. This is the simplest line of the album, the most mysterious, the most heartfelt, and so the album’s best moment.

Lianne Habinek is a PhD candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about literary metaphor and 17th-century neuroscience.

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