Portland’s own folk-rock concept album creators are back with a new LP that much like The Crane Wife before it, is a gathering of songs held together by a narrative and style gleaned from British folk music, and all sparked off by the discovery of one Anne Brigg’s 1966 EP, The Hazards Of Love. Are you still with us? Fair play.
One may have thought that the wonderful Crane Wife had got this sort of album out of their system – elegant as it was in its songs based around the oriental folk tale of the same name. It dipped in and out of the main storyline with their trademark olde worlde phrasings and a really strong backbone of music which was rock in the most part, but of course retaining some folk elements particularly in a selection of string instruments and in Colin Meloy’s distinctive voice. Apparently the itch wasn’t fully scratched and so we now have the tale (mostly) of Margaret. A woman who has some terrible luck trying to help animals of the forest who turn out to be a collection of pretty odd and nasty things. They are seemingly nice to her but then ravage, and kidnap her. God help the poor woman.
To be honest, this kind of story is hard to follow and it doesn’t flow through every track seamlessly – though the tracks are seamless in the way that there’s no gap between any songs. Of the 17 tracks, many are preludes, reprises, interludes and bridge pieces between more tales of Margaret. The language and themes can swerve towards the twee, like cup of earl grey with your granny, but the light air in many songs (-Isn’t It A Lovely Night’) is, it seems, a counterbalance for the harsher, rockier stuff (-A Bower Scene’). If you think of it more like the soundtrack to a Grimms Fairy Tale musical you might get some idea of the way the songs and themes peak and trough. There’s a lot of laying down on forest floors, on the underbrush, on beds of clover and what-not and it’s easy to feel like the narrative is going in circles in parts – that’s if you’ve caught onto it at all.
To step out of this circle, there are some wonderful songs that really stand up alone such as -The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)’, -The Wanting Comes In Waves’ and the mercifully calming outro of -The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)’. There’s descents into harder edged rock (-The Queen’s Rebuke’) but they really do make the album swing about on it’s axis between the melancholy and the harsh.
All in all, it’s more committed to its cause than the previous album but because of this, The Hazards of Love is more of a soundtrack, with all the mood swings that such a construction requires. More meaty in its telling of a story but less enjoyable on repeat listenings, the drama all gets a bit overblown sometimes. The Decemberists at their best write songs that are warm and touching and belie the era they’re written in, but there’s not so many on this album. Not quite a long-player for the desert island – but perhaps more of a cautionary tale before a trip to the forest.