A few months back, after reading a blurb in Rolling Stone describing The Hazards of Love, the forthcoming sixth full-length from the Decemberists, as a “twisty, fantastical story about a woman named Margaret who is ravaged by a shape-shifting animal; her lover, William, who is desperate for the two of them to be reunited; a forest queen; and a villainous rake,” I half-joked that I still had no idea why so many people were so willing to talk shit about the band. I say “half-joked” because the truth is it’s not particularly difficult to see what people don’t like about Colin Meloy and his co-conspirators — they’re easily one of the most pretentious bands making the rounds in the indie rock world today, with their enthusiastic reliance on archaic language, their obsession with obscure, untraditional, old-timey instrumentation and outlandish story songs. Meloy is consistently taken to task for his peculiar voice, too, nasaly and prone to intense over-enunciation. On the flip side, though, I’ve always been of the opinion that there is far more good than bad: they’ve released five records full of absolutely infectious, unorthodox pop songs, driven by Meloy’s unimpeachable knack for unforgettable melodies, and also by his under-recognized ability to carve affecting stories out of the lives of completely foreign, seemingly unrelatable characters, all the while resisting the urge to waste energy on trite self-reflection, the single most common gripe against the rest of the indie rock world with which Meloy is always somewhat unfairly grouped.
My stance on their back catalogue remains positive, but now that The Hazards of Love is upon us, my self-appointed role as Defender of All Things Decemberists is beginning to look like one I can’t in good conscience fulfill. It’s been almost three years since the release of their Capitol Records debut, The Crane Wife, a period of time during which the band’s popularity grew to the point where they’re selling out huge venues in every city in the U.S., and have become the closest thing indie rock will ever get to a household name. And so it’s not terribly surprising that they’ve taken the idea of artistic license to an entirely new level where they feel comfortable indulging their every cringe-worthy whim, but it also bodes far better for the band’s detractors than it does for its supporters.
The Decemberists have long displayed a fondness for heavier sounds than the ones they’re typically associated with producing. Their 2004 EP The Tain was riddled with loud, distorted guitars and a strange sense of foreboding, while The Crane Wife provided a few brief glimpses of a distinctly proggier version of the band. It’s never quite been the kind of thing they excel at, rather a set of tricks and touches they’ve occasionally employed to impressive effect. With The Hazards of Love, though, they’ve focused more on those sounds, and taken in such a large dose, it just doesn’t work for them.
Which isn’t to say that it couldn’t have, of course, or that there isn’t a smattering of successful moments spread out across the record. “A Bower Scene” begins with a palm-muted, chugging guitar part and slowly builds to an instrumental hook heavy enough that even Helmet would have been proud. “The Wanting Comes in Waves” is an obvious show-closer at over six minutes in length, featuring an insane amount of different parts and the most squealing, impressive guitar work we’ve ever heard from them. Both of these songs, though, also boast the kind of vocal melodies that I’ve come to expect from Meloy, as does “The Rake Song,” which provides exactly the mixture of bombast and melody that could have made this a formidable addition to the band’s catalogue if only there were more of it. Too much of the rest of the record gets hung up on overlong, mid-tempo tracks that showcase neither impressive experimentation with new sounds nor the band’s more battle-tested strengths.
Strangely, for a record that takes on such a decidedly more aggressive tone, it’s also the most boring record they’ve ever released, offering little in the way of serviceable hooks, and even less in the way of their usually impressive lyrics, with the overarching story coming off so jumbled and scattered that it practically disappears. They’ve tried to build on their well-established sound, but they haven’t, exactly. For now, they’ve deconstructed it, removed all the things that were good and replaced them with things that simply aren’t. Call it a transitional record, or call it an unfortunate misstep. Or, if you’re one of the folks who’s always hated them, call it the first Decemberists record you might actually like.