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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Decemberists go too far with imagery and creative lyrics

The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy is a different breed of frontman. Though contributing his acoustic guitar and vocals to the band may have played a hand in making it one of indie rock’s most popular bands, what sets him apart is his love for British folk music.
When tearing through The Decemberists’ discography, you will come across many songs based on English folktales, as well as cautionary tales and fables created by Meloy. This has been the band’s shtick throughout its career. Meloy’s keen sense of old English tales, in collaboration with his creative writing degree from the University of Montana, provides a musical style many artists have never contemplated exploring.
The Decemberists’ latest release, “The Hazards of Love,” goes after one of rock music’s most coveted concepts: the “rock opera.” Meloy and the gang put together 17 tracks for the new album that was initially slated to become a play, but later had the idea scratched because Meloy though it was “unstageable.”
Though unstageable in a theatrical sense, the band took the album to the stage in its entirety on the first night of South by Southwest in Austin.
The story follows a young woman, her shape-shifting lover, a queen of the forest and a rake, who is hired by the queen to capture and kidnap the young woman. This may seem a bit much when it comes to cramming plot into songs, but for fans familiar with The Decemberists’ work, it is the usual.
The album nicely shows that the indie folk style the band typically exhibits can be seamlessly morphed into hard rock riffs without losing Meloy’s acoustic guitar as the centerpiece. Lead guitarist Chris Funk shines in the tracks “A Bower Scene” and “The Abduction of Margaret,” in which he deploys dark guitar effects to accompany the even darker lyrics.
“The Rake’s Song” stands out the most on the album because it contains a simple acoustic guitar pattern and appears to be the most radio-friendly. That is until the listener pays close attention to the lyrics. The rake’s menacing character is fully explained in this song, telling a sub-story of a man who is left with three children after his wife dies, and sings almost joyously how he plans to kill each of his kids because they were unwanted.
Fans of The Decemberists may find dark lyrics of “The Rake’s Song” matched with upbeat music a reoccurring theme from past albums, but newcomers to the band could easily walk away from this song appalled. Meloy lyrically allows the Rake’s children a bit of retribution towards the end of the story by having their spirits attack him.
Although Meloy is usually right on point with his character developments and plot progressions in his songs, “The Hazards of Love” becomes ambiguous at times. This is the first time The Decemberists have had one story flow throughout the entire album, and it appears to veer off course in different moments, throwing off the continuity of the tale. It is difficult to distinguish where the story is because the lyrics tend to focus a bit too much on imagery.
The album has a couple of great guest performances by Becky Stark of the band Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, singing the roles of the young woman and the queen, respectively. Worden’s vocal portrayal of the queen outshines any other element on the album, vividly channeling every evil queen seen in Disney movies.
Meloy, on the other hand, sings the parts of the Rake, the woman’s shape-shifting lover and narrator. This causes the songs to be confusing and forces the listener to work hard to follow the plot.
Old fans of The Decemberists will be accustomed to such tales as the one told in “The Hazards of Love,” but new listeners may turn and flee from any future opportunity to listen to the band. You will not find any songs such like “O’ Valencia” or “July, July,” songs that attracted many fans to the band.
The new album’s concept, though an honorable attempt, appears to fly over our heads. The story becomes uninteresting and awkwardly dark, and the music is less than what we have come to expect from Meloy and his band.
“The Hazards of Love” shows exactly how far The Decemberists can take their style, and proves it is further than anybody really wanted them to go.

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