Colin Meloy’s grandiose ambitions have, along with his band’s popularity, grown gradually more grandiose over the years. Smarty-pants fans swooned for his use of old-timey language on 2002’s Castaways and Cutouts, embraced the nautical theme of the following year’s Her Majesty, and gleefully joined (or, more likely, rejoined) the drama club on indie farewell Picaresque. Jumping to a major label further fueled Meloy’s desire for outsize ideas: 2006’s The Crane Wife both summarized his past work and then added a multipart song cycle based on a Japanese folk tale for good measure.
So why did often reticent indie-rock fansindulge this Portland, oregon orchestralpop group’s move toward proggish pomposity, a path normally reserved for bands associated with cheesy ’70s excess (Styx, Yes, REO Speedwagon)? Because Meloy can write the hell out of a melody, and he’s got a flair for making what might seem heady and ridiculous on paper into something that sounds relatable and touching. (Maybe you can’t directly empathize with, say, a “chimbley sweep,” but you can at least appreciate his plight in song.)
Yet with The Hazards of Love, Meloy may have high-kicked too far. Heavy on atmosphere and narrative, the hour-long, 17-part opus sets itself up as a piece of musical theater but forgets too frequently that great musicals need to deliver sticky choruses in addition to plot-advancing details.
The latter he’s got covered: Hazards tells the story of a woman, Margaret, whose travails include being sexually assaulted by a shape-shifter, abduction at the hands of a villain known as “the rake,” and eventually (if conceptalbums require spoiler alerts, consider this fair warning) joyous death in the arms of her true love. There’s also child murder, a jealous queen, and enough anachronism to power an autogyroor gramophone for weeks.
Still, these flamboyant attempts are something to behold and at least occasionally admire. The lyric sheet, by necessity, explains which character is speaking when, and Meloy has employed a pair of ladies — My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden and Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark — to give voice to the queen and Margaret, respectively. Worden’s commanding pipes, somewhere between PJ Harvey’s and Lita Ford’s, require the band to add serious musical force, which results in some of the snarliest, bluesiest, rockingest moments in the Decemberists’ catalog. But it’s jarring, because they just aren’t as adept at anger as they are at whimsy. “The Rake’s Song,” voiced by Meloy, growls similarly — which is no wonder, considering it tells the villain’s horrific backstory, in which he murders his offspring. (Don’t worry, they return as a choir on “The Hazards of Love 3 [Revenge!]” to get even.)
Things come down to earth for the hauntingly sweet “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?” and “Annan Water,” two rare moments where the band settles for simple prettiness. But there’s no obvious single here to inspire sing-alongs or reward those not invested in the broader mood. It’s all or nothing, and the former requires concentration and patience.To use one of those fading words that Meloy is so fond of, The Hazards of Love feels like a gambit, with the Decemberists betting that increased bombast and literary aspiration will make up for decreased attention to pop craft. It’s a hazardous bet that yields spectacular sparks but ultimately asks for much more than it’s willing to give.