Once again, prose-conscious folk-rockers The Decemberists sing stories of death and destruction in the sweetest way possible. The band’s new album, “The Hazards of Love,” is a follow-up to 2006’s “The Crane Wife,” and is an evolution of a once-potential musical for director Michael Mayer. The album’s focus is the tragedy of William and Margaret, whose lives and love are told through chronological, interweaved tracks.
Opening with a short instrumental, “Hazards” kicks off with lead singer Colin Meloy on two tracks, developing the love-struck character of William. He longs for Margaret, who is introduced on the bluesy song, “Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga),” sung by Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark – who may have the most elegant and appealing bird-like voice on the planet.
The album picks up with the bouncy single “The Rake’s Song,” and in true Decemberists style, the upbeat track tells a story that has a death count of three – potentially a record-high for the band. The storyline has now introduced an evil queen (sung by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond), and the tracks progress to develop a context matching the intensity of the songs’ musical qualities.
The interweaving of the tracks is both musical and narrative when “The Abduction of Margaret” adds elements to the character while recycling the same chord progression from “A Bower Scene.” Title track “Hazards of Love” parts 1-4 check in with William and Margaret through equal tones of soft charm.
The Decemberists try new things on “Hazards,” such as the metal-inspired power chords of “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing” and “A Bower Scene,” but stay true to their precious persona on duet “Isn’t It a Lovely Night” and “Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned).” (And yes, the main characters die on this closer, but do so ever-so-peacefully in the arms of one another.)
The Decemberists are still wonderfully weird on “Hazards,” and the effect of their concept-album format is on par with Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust” or even Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” Because Meloy’s artistic abilities range from songwriting to storytelling (as proved by his BA in creative writing from University of Montana), the weirdness continues to work wonderfully in their favor.