The Power of Musical Rhetoric: The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love

By Daniel Garrett

The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love
Produced by Tucker Martine
and The Decemberists
Capitol Records, 2009

There is a genuine freedom involved in living and working on the margins of society—freedom as well as difficulties, and how much of that has anything to do with The Decemberists, an established band with an important recording company? The music group has come a long way in a short time; and it can do what it wishes. The Decemberists are singer-songwriter and guitarist Colin Meloy, and banjoist and guitar-player Chris Funk, pianist Jenny Conlee, bass guitarist Nate Query, and drummer John Moen; and the group’s albums are 5 Songs (2001), Castaways and Cutouts (2002), Her Majesty (2003), Picaresque (2005), The Crane Wife (2006), and The Hazards of Love (2009). Does the album The Hazards of Love work as a coherent whole? Is the album musically interesting and lyrically impressive, but intellectually thin? The themes of The Hazards of Love are home and adventure, love found and lost, innocence and decadence, and power and weakness, focusing on two lovers, William and Margaret, and the effect on their relationship of interlopers, a wild creature, a sexual rake, and an imposing powerful woman. Identifying an important subject confirms that meaning and significance are possible in the world and it unifies a community around that subject (for celebration, discussion, business, etc.). The musical references of The Hazards of Love are European classical music, folk and rock, genres privileged as serious music, suggesting authenticity, the preferred genres of many established contemporary critics. Of course, all music is creation, construction, if not contrivance; and artifice, like beauty, is in the eyes and ears of the beholder. The ironic thing is that art only matters because life does—if there is nothing in your life but art, art ceases to have root or resonance (it is akin to a mirror reflecting a mirror—shiny and empty). Is there enough life in The Hazards of Love?

The album The Hazards of Love begins with ominous organ tones—are they serious or merely melodramatic? Yet, the music that follows is sturdy, formidable, although some of the songs may be only fragments, parts of a larger story and theme, a story of love and separation. It is notable that the voices we hear are not connected to the blues, which has influenced much American and English rock. The voice of the principal lead singer Colin Meloy, for instance, has a certain formality to it, even a folky/Celtic formality—it is not an intimate voice; and yet it is a voice that has the authority of tradition, and is capable of effect. The album may well have been a play to be seen or a short story to be read, but for how Meloy and his collaborators handle it, giving it power: the weight of the story expands because the music does. In the second half of the album, the songs are more obviously intense—louder, more volatile, in emotional tone and tempo. One of my favorite compositions on The Hazards of Love is a twisted family story, of unwanted children, that is weirdly, wonderfully exhilarating: with a plot as old as a Greek tragedy and as current as the morning news report, “The Rake’s Song” has the bite and bitterness of something by Randy Newman, or even Bertolt Brecht.

The “Prelude” to The Hazards of Love is somber organ music, and the song that gives the album its title and theme, the story-ballad “The Hazards of Love,” features guitar and piano, whereas “A Bower Scene” has a fast beat and throbbing guitar. The light, feminine voice of Becky Stark enacts a part—that of Margaret—in the beginning drama, against a heavy drum beat, in “Won’t Want for Love.” A soft song about lust, “The Hazards of Love 2” demonstrates that the solidity of the music is more impressive than its invention or melodic beauty: this is music in which, for the most part, each instrument can be heard alone and as part of the ensemble, in which the sounds produced take up space and time in ways that seem entertaining, thoughtful, significant. Nothing seems careless but the album does not seem too contrived. “The Queen’s Approach” is a folky interlude. The accordion (Jenny Conlee’s), and an acoustic guitar, are prominent in the postcoital “Isn’t It a Lovely Night.”

Colin Meloy’s voice, like his songwriting, has its own kind of mastery in “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” and the other songs. In “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid,” the queen—a woman whose generosity comes with expectations, as in many fables, as in life—asks about the aid she has given, and how she is to be repaid, feeling betrayed (Sharon Worden sings as the queen); and the song has an impressive riff. Robyn Hitchcock plays electric guitar on the quiet piece “An Interlude,” which makes a strong contrast to what follows, “The Rake’s Song,” a rampaging song about an early and regretted marriage and unwanted children, killed by their father.

“The Abduction of Margaret” has fast, short beats matching the lyrics about a woman’s—Margaret’s—abduction. In “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing” the queen seems to want to help the abductor of Margaret, who is the rake, as her abduction will –the queen reasons—remove Margaret as temptation from the queen’s wild creature, remove a rival. The rhythms of the song are as tumultuous as the crossing of a rushing river. (The story and its treatment may sound—and actually be—pretentious but somehow it is not ridiculous: this is a band working at nearly its full strength; and I write “nearly” as I think it would be a challenge—and a greater pleasure—to have the themes explored be more explicitly contemporary. Is Meloy able to write songs now that make sense of the very specific situations and stresses of modern life?) William wants to cross the water to get to Margaret in “Annan Water,” a song with voice and guitar and a nice harmonious chant near the end—incantatory. Margaret, held by the rake, in “Margaret in Captivity” calls out to her true love, William. The children of the rake sing in angelic voices in “The Hazards of Love 3,” with Jenny Conlee’s harp, Adam Hoornstra’s viola, and Collin Oldham’s cello; and that song is my second favorite, suggesting as it does imagination—and both beauty and horror. William and Margaret are reunited in the reprise of “The Wanting Comes in Waves,” but theirs (“The Hazards of Love 4”) is no easily happy ending. I did not come to The Decemberists’ album The Hazards of Love assured that I would like or respect it, but I do. It works the way art often does, through language, its images and symbols, its ability to express and stir emotion, and through sound: and the life it finds is in our imagination.

Daniel Garrett is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, AllAboutJazz.com, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Offscreen.com, Option, PopMatters.com, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. He has written fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism. Daniel Garrett’s web log at Blogger.com, focused on culture and society, is called “City and Country, Boy and Man.” His e-mail address is D.Garrett.Writer@gmail.com

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