It's nice to read so many positive reviews for this album, particularly those from fans of the first generation of prog-rock fans. The Decemberists certainly seem to have hit the right notes for many with this one. For myself, my first taste of their music was the wonderful Picaresque, which was one of those really special finds that put me in a spin for weeks, just brilliant. Hearing Castaways And Cutouts, after that, was a none-event, unfortunately.
So now I own a copy of The Hazards Of Love, and concur with the masses that this is one audacious album. The music is bright and adventurous, drawing noteably from classic prog-rock, British folk-rock, Americana, the blues, and a hint of early music, throughout the telling of one rather dark tale. If this storyline were made into a film or book you can be sure I'd steer clear, but it is curious that such subject-matter in song-form, at least in the capable hands of folks like The Decemberists, doesn't leave me disturbed and regretting the encounter. There is plenty of light and space here and it is overall much more dignified (in a good way) than you might expect.
I have no problem with Colin Meloy's singing (though my wife did at first), I'm actually reminded of Robin Williamson (Incredible String Band), and it is perfect for these songs. Also akin to Robin Williamson, Colin Meloy is like a magpie collecting curios and decorating a nest, all sorts of shiny fragments that don't really go together in normalville but together in this setting are beautiful. Joining Colin are Sharon Worden - who sings with suitable power, malevolence and contempt as the Queen character - and Becky Stark, singing as Margaret, whose voice is soft and lovely and goes well with Colin's voice, particularly on the charming Isn't It A Lovely Night?. On The Wanting Comes In Waves, there are passages with swooping female backing vocals that sound like they were pulled off of Neon Bible by Arcade Fire, I was surprised at first, but it's good stuff.
Choosing to make a concept album has its pitfalls, one artistic decision that I'm not so keen on is having all the songs run into each other. It works really well in some places but not in others, it's just a small detail but after a while I just crave a couple of seconds pause between tracks. This probably magnifies my sense that there should be a certain commitment on the part of the listener to hear out the complete album, it feels improper to pick and choose tracks, whereas an album of stand-alone songs can be taken in smaller portions without it feeling strangely wrong. Because of this I will probably listen to this album less.
I don't rate this album quite as highly as many of the other reviewers have, I think it is very fine, strong throughout, adventurous, but I like Picaresque better. In some ways Hazards Of Love is like the brilliant Mariner's Revenge Song or the Bagman's Gambit - both songs brimming with ideas, both arranged into several scenes - allowed to grow in size and bust out of its earthenware pot and take over the greenhouse. At the first listen to Hazards I wasn't sure what I made of it, but several listens on, and with much of the story more or less understood, I can say I like it lots!