When the The Decemberists got into the writing process for their new album, Capitol Records must have known they had struck musical gold again with the band. Why else would their management, promoters and label have encouraged the recording and upcoming release this 17-track, 59 minute long, meandering epic entitled The Hazards of Love? Especially since there was a two and a half year gap since their last album, The Crane Wife, one might not expect Capitol records to take such a risk unless the material was good. Even the title alone, which is shared by four of its tracks, screams this word of caution to any record executive with business sense. In today’s iTunes world, the radio single may not be as important, but the individual track is even more important, so when a band asks its listeners to listen to a seventeen-track concept album with several principle characters to follow, the order is a pretty tall one. For anyone able to stop sending updates to their twitter long enough to sit down for an hour and listen to through the new Decemberists album, they will find that the band delivers, and while it may not have been their goal to prove prog rock can still be relevant in the 21st st century, they might have done that too.
This album was meant to be listened to from front to back. It’s got an overture and a sort of epilogue track that sits alone after the grand finale of the album, and the interior of the album’s track lineup is structured almost like a symphony, with movements and reprisals and contrasting voices. The Decemberists have always developed complex arrangements in their music, but they’ve stretched their sound to include some grungy, bluesy sounds that introduce the Queen in the story, a creepy zombie-child chorus, and even some sludgy metal riffs to top it all off.
The album isn’t flawless. It is a little slow to get moving, and there's one track I consistently cringe while listening through ("Isn't it a Lovely Night") The album introduces a bunch of characters to a narrative that can be understood if you listen hard and maybe cheat by looking at the lyrics, but might not have the accessibility that their previous work had in terms of storytelling content. That’s kind of ironic, considering the Decemberists are known for their storytelling capabilities, and this is their biggest endeavor yet. If the Decemberist were looking to have their cake and eat it to by writing a mega concept album and craft a Billboard chart single, they didn’t manage it. Their last album had "O Valencia" but this album’s best candidate is probably the song "Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)", which still is not exactly named for radio consumption. So, let us just assume that Decemberists are trying to make it big, just not the traditional ways of the music industry. No fault of theirs, just... different.
Aside from the album's shortcomings, there's lots to love here. I found myself humming at least a half-dozen different melodies from HoL, tapped a few of its percussion breaks on my knee and otherwise found myself defaulting to it on my computer whenever I needed music. "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid" is probably one of the highest points on the records, as Colin Meloy's leading man debates with the Queen of the forest, harpsichords and bluesy guitar dueling all the way, and a soaring chorus to complement it all. "The Rake's Song" is decidedly creepy and percussion heavy, but "Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)" beats it out for the creepy factor. While themes are repeated across the album, the content never feels stagnant, much to the credit of The Decemberists.
In the end, there’s little question about it – The Decemberists will floor their devoted fans with the content on this album. It's an infecting, well-produced piece of music; There's no denying that. Whether it will get extensive crossover appeal is hard to say because this album is not very easily subdivided into single tracks for someone to grab off of iTunes. Maybe they’re trying to make a statement to the mainstream by doing this, or maybe they just got a great idea and went with it. Either way, this album can’t be judged by the number of copies it may or may not sell, because if it tanks, that’s just too bad. This album is an experience, and a pretty darn good one at that. If you have an hour to kick around, give Hazards of Love a listenthrough in one sitting. Do it again a second time, and you’ll pick up more nuance. That’s music appreciation at its best, and Hazards of Love delivers on that front. It’s not Top 40, nor is it extreme – it’s Decemberists doing what they know how to do, and doing it to epic proportions. It’s got a few flaws, but it’s the best thing I’ve heard so far in 2009.
I give it a 9 out of 10.