Yes, this particular album is… well, not that old, it’s from 2009, but still. It’s definitely one of the albums I love the most, if not my current-and-for-at-least-a-year album, and it’s also pretty polarizing, amongst Decemberists fans and just regular folk alike. Thus my titling this post “in defense,” because for whatever reason? A lot of people… well, I hate to say “don’t get it,” because that sounds way hipster and snobby, but a lot of people just, I guess, aren’t into this kind of thing.
(This is the case with many things I love. The entire musical theatre genre? The films of Tarantino? The works of Joss [well, Firefly I've yet to meet a non-fan IRL, but Buffy some people aren't into, and I know that at least on the interwebs there were a ton of Dollhouse -- not naysayers, necessarily, though there were some -- but again people who weren't necessarily on board? The genre of comic books? Repo? Sucker Punch? B-horror movies? Bloody deaths? Corseting? My particular mancrushes [actually, some of the ladycrushes, too, probably]? It’s something I’m used to, but even still, like the adamant fangirl I am, I must jump to defenses of everything that is part of my heart.)
Unlike the vast majority of albums ever, Hazards is, well. According to Wikipedia it’s a “rock opera.” (See why I was big with the loving from the start?) Others might call it a “concept album,” which also according to Wikipedia citing Roy Shuker is an album “unified by a theme, which can be instrumental, compositional, narrative, or lyrical.” Things like the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or The Who’s Tommy, or Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, or Green Day’s now-theaterized American Idiot or 21st Century Breakdowm. Concept albums. Which are often also rock operas, but “concept album” just sits better with the masses, doesn’t it?
Hazards is also a love story. Which shouldn’t be that weird for people, right? I mean, the majority of popular and non-popular music alike is about love. Of course, most of it isn’t quite in so much detail, spending an entire album telling the love story between a maiden and a “shape-shifting boreal forest dweller” (also Wikipedia) in an unspecified olden days time. Most is just “ooh, baby baby, I love you” or if it’s getting cruder maybe “grind that ass sexy bitch” or something. There aren’t even too many songs nowadays that tell this detailed of a story. (Unsurprisingly, many examples I could cite are also Decemberists’ work: “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” being my best and favorite, but much of The Crane Wife, also.) But these lovers, who meet in true tragic style and consummate the relationship right away, leaving Margaret (sung by Becky Stark of the band Lavender Diamond) preggers, which in turn forces her to leave the… maiden’s home (?) where she lives to go find him.
And it’s a love story with conflict that doesn’t just come from someone’s cheating ex or something. Said shape-shifter, William (sung by frontman and god of indie Colin Meloy) has a fairy queen mother who is downright evil and freaky. She’s sung by Shara Worden of the band My Brightest Diamond and hot freakety damn can that woman sing. And that fairy queen mother is a jealous freaking bitch. So she hires a man known simply as the Rake (also sung by Meloy, tapping into his treacherous creeper vibe) to kidnap Margaret and prevent the lovers from being together. He is a massive creeper, though; in “The Rake’s Song,” track 10, he basically sings a happy little ditty about his wife dying in childbirth and his subsequent murdering of his three children so he could go off and screw whores.
A lot of pop songs sing about promiscuity, to varying effect (and I judge only their lack of poetry; as far as I’m concerned, they can go do whatever if they’re safe about it, just think of something more interesting to sing about it). But it takes a special group like the Decemberists to sing about filicide to facilitate promiscuity. Actually, I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard another group sing about filicide, period. Maybe a rap song that mentions some kid getting shot in a drive-by, but not a father poisoning, drowning, and burning his kids.
And Margaret and William’s is a tragic love, as mentioned, so obviously it’s not going to work out for them. This is another thing I love. I understand that it’s standard tragic fare, but even the genius that is West Side Story had to leave at least Maria alive. And for the sweet love of God, how many popular references are there to Romeo and Juliet in a happy “isn’t love swell?” context nowadays? Tragedy is as old as time, but a lot of people don’t have the balls to deal with it fully nowadays. Sure, there are hella depressing break-up songs all over the place, songs so maudlin they necessitate my saying “hella,” but a love story where both of the lovers die isn’t on everyone’s pop hits.
But the Decemberists aren’t everyone’s pop hits. Their style has always been unique; again Wikipedia categorizes them as “indie rock,” “folk rock,” “art rock,” “progressive rock,” “alt-country,” and my favorite, “baroque pop.” (Okay, so “alt-country” applies more to other albums an less to this one.) Hazards is “baroque pop” at its finest. You have unusual topics. Hyperpoetic lyrics. Organs and upright basses and thanks to goddess Jenny Conlee accordions. Basically, weird-ass stuff. Old-fashioned stuff. But done in a way that feels newish. And a hell of a lot more morbid than… oh, everything else.
I think this is part of my love for this album, honestly, because I’m a little bit deranged that way (as evidenced by my above list of interests). It’s morbid. A lot of musicals tell stories, but there’s a blessed few that are morbid (my baby Spring Awakening fills the morbid quota, oh yeah; I like to think that the ghosts of the Rake’s children and Moritz and Wendla get to be ghost-buddies in ghost Europe, ’cause I’m just like that). A lot of operas tell stories, and some of those are morbid, but, y’know, they’re in other languages, so while I know what’s going on thanks to synopses and can appreciate the musical and vocal elements, it’s not quite the same. But here you not only have the Rake murdering his kids. You have the Queen basically taking a hit out on her son’s lover. You have the Rake abusing the hell out of poor Margaret. You have said ghosts (spoiler) coming back to drive their dad to his doom. You have an epic drowning.
Similar to my rant on using Romeo and Juliet in pop songs (I’m sure this will be a list later), the tragic love of a pair who meets, screws, and is in Love could piss me off royally. I don’t believe in love at first sight, usually. I believe in attraction at first sight, certainly; love has to grow. But Margaret and William at least experience attraction and connection at first sight, and through their experiences are bonded. I think when they drown epically, they’re in love, finally. They’ve earned the right to be. And they haven’t been frustrating as all get-out in the process of falling in love, so that helps, too.
Also, let’s talk about the children ghosts for a minute. Because. CHILDREN GHOSTS. VENGEFUL CHILDREN GHOSTS. Rarely have I found something so epic even in theory in a song. And their “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)” is a creepy-ass awesome tune. I mean, all of the tunes here are amazing. “Won’t Want for Love,” Margaret’s first lament, is beautiful. The Queen’s “Repaid” is dramatic perfection. But there’s just… something about creepy-ass children ghosts singing, man.
I get why people aren’t into this. Baroque pop so isn’t everyone’s style, and an album with a plotline that requires attention to be paid to it isn’t either. But for all of the reasons I love it, basically, it’s not the kind of thing everyone’s gonna grab onto. Baroque pop concept albums about tragic love and fairy queens and children ghosts aren’t necessarily aimed at the masses. I realize this, I accept this. (I have a harder time accepting Decemberists fans who for some indistinct reason just don’t get attached to the album; I mean, I don’t expect everyone to have listened to it at least 300 times, but really? It’s classic Decemberists. It’s weird older stuff and instruments and lyrics and Colin Meloy and guest artists. It shouldn’t be that strange. It’s definitely different from, say, The King is Dead, but they’re both brilliant.) But don’t be scared off, kids. If you haven’t listened to this album before, just… try it? For me?
–your fangirl heroine.