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May 26, 2009 / jnolen

The Hazards of Love

I bought tickets to see the Decemberists’ show at the Fox Theater some months ago, before their newest album, The Hazards of Love had arrived in record stores. I’m a Decemberists’ fan; I own all their other albums, and I’ve heard them play three times before. But I confess, when I first heard The Hazards of Love I was seriously disappointed. In fact, I don’t think I even made it through one complete listen.

The Decemberists have always been a strange band — with their faux Victorian melodrama, morbid sense of humor, and gleefully obscure vocabulary — but that’s why their fans love them. But The Hazards of Love doubles down on the weirdness. It’s a full-length, rock-opera style concept album; multiple parts, recurring musical themes and no pauses. And that’s without mentioning that actual content of the work, which I don’t yet claim to understand. (I think I’ll have to read the lyrics before I do.)

In my first, cursory listen, I found the unconventional song structures and the guest vocalists off-putting. Songs shift from ballad, to rock, to melodic, to bombastic with no warning. There were some great hooks buried in there, but none of the great songs I had come to expect from the Decemberists.

With that impression, I was tempted to sell the tickets and skip the concert altogether. I didn’t, however, and I’m so glad. As I expected (feared), they played the entire new album, start-to-finish. But I’ll be damned if it didn’t totally rock. The hooks I heard on my first listen were even more powerful. And it work builds over its whole length. While the individual songs never really pay off the their hooks, the whole album delivers when taken together.

It’s an opera of sorts, and it called for two other female voices, so Colin Meloy recruited the singers of two other successful bands: My Brightest Diamond and Lavender Diamond. Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, with her low-voiced, Janis-Joplin-esque power, completely stole the show. Wearing her punk-rocker best, she stomped and flailed around the stage like a Fury. (Unfortunately, her performance on the record fails to capture the raw power of her live delivery.)

Hearing The Hazards of Love played live, in it’s entirety, completely changed my opinion. It’s really a great record; it’s very different from a traditional Decemberists’ album, but still a great experience. If you, like me, didn’t given this record it’s due — it might be worth another listen.

(As a final note, I’ll mention that the unpleasant sound problems at the Fox have not improved.)

One Comment

  1. Tim Moore / May 27 2009 11:45 am

    The singer of My Brightest Diamond is actually Shara Worden, previously known for being part of Sufjan Stevens’ band. My Brightest Diamond opened for Stevens when they played in Berkeley a couple of years ago… what an electrifying show!

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