In this age of downloads and single tracks a proper, old fashioned album with a beginning, a middle, an end and a story seems somewhat archaic – a throwback to a golden age the record industry has all but abandoned.
It is rather appropriate therefore to find that the latest champions of the concept album (dare we even say rock opera?) are The Decemberists, those kings and queens of whimsy whose fairytale vocals and freak-pop melodies exist precisely to tell us stories through the medium of music.
Hazards of Love is their fifth full studio album and their first in three years – though we’ve had a few exquisite EPs to keep us happy in the meantime. Colin Meloy uses it to take his fascination with the folk scene of the 1960s to new extremes, building a seventeen-track extravaganza around the title of a 1966 EP by British folk singer Anne Briggs. Briggs never recorded a song of the same name but Meloy has decided to write four and to spread them across the album.
Helped by a host of guest vocalists including Becky Stark of the criminally under-rated Lavender Diamond, Robyn Hitchcock and My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James, Meloy weaves a rock-pop fantasy tale around a woman named Margaret, her lover William, a shapeshifting animal that ravages her, a forest queen and a cold-blooded rake.
The result is both classic Decemberists – all folk pop whimsy wrapped up in darker lyrics than their surface suggests – and a new direction, using the ’60s/early ’70s folk foundations to follow their logical path into that odd corner of the English genre that somehow crossed over with Heavy Metal.
Opening with the instrumental cathedral organ drone of Prelude, The Hazards Of Love 1 (subtitled The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle The Thistles Undone) starts as the album intends to continue, with a song of maidens wrapped up in harmonies pointing the way from Fairport Convention to Hawkwind.
Throughout, it remains routed in this particular corner of English music history, most noticeably on the Flaming Lips-ish Margaret In Captivity, with its doom-laden strings and ’70s production, as well as on the Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing and A Bower Scene.
Elsewhere, they turn back to their own roots, such as with the childish singsong of Hazards Of Love 3, the fairytale pop of Isn’t It A Lovely Night?, the beautifully gentle An Interlude and The Rake’s Song (available ahead of the album release as a free download from the band’s website at www.decemberists.com), which is very much classic Meloy.
If all of this sounds intriguing but the idea of a 17-track concept rock opera is just a bit too scary to rush into head first, a perfect sampler would be The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid, a classic slice of Decemberists whimsy that explodes without warning into something all together fuller and more bombastic.
Placed dead centre of the album, it forms a perfect bridge between the old and the new, showing what the Decemberists are capable of, where they’re capable of going and in the process reaffirms them as one of the most interesting bands of the decade.