“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture“
That quote was the start of a thread over on mastodon (it was going to the opening ramble of this post), but never has it been more apt than when in relation to this next album.
I remember back in 2009 driving back from North London and listening to an interview with Colin Meloy, on BBC Radio 2 I think it was. The interviewer was incredulous that an ambitious concept album, let alone a rock opera of all things, had been considered a good idea for release in these modern times. I think he used the word ‘brave’ a lot. I have to say I wasn’t really aware of The Decemberists at that time either, but being a huge fan of the genre, and a sucker for rock operas, I decided to get the vinyl the next day. They had me at ‘concept album’ really. 2009 was already starting to see a revival in vinyl but it was still a bit niche, but I honestly think the impact of this tour de force would not have been the same on any other medium. I’ve read other giants of the concept album say how they wish they had written for CD (Ian Anderson for example), that the turning over of the vinyl ruined the immersion in the story, but I don’t know if I agree. I connected with this album physically as well as through the music, and I think that helped me to appreciate it more.
It’s not a happy story. Poor old Margaret encounters an injured fawn in the forest that changes into a handsome man called William. Well, one thing leads to another and Margaret becomes pregnant with Willam’s child. Enter William’s mother, The Forest Queen, and an unpleasant widower called The Rake who has his own sordid encounter with Margaret, and a sorry and sad story unfurls, ending in a suicidal pact in the form of a kind of marriage between the temporarily mortal William and his love Margaret.
It’s a tale that feels like it should have its roots in classic folklore, but is actually all from the mind of Meloy, although you can’t deny the motifs that run through it are folk inspired. It takes inspiration too from an EP of the same name by the great Annie Briggs. Originally destined for a stage musical, it soon became clear to Meloy that it would make a better album.
It’s strange to me that Pitchfork and other reviews complained that songs on the album did not stand up in their own right, that they were too linked to each other and themed. It seems by 2009 people had forgotten what a concept album was! Uncut magazine couldn’t even bring themselves to use the term rock opera. Make no mistake, this album is supposed to be listened to in its entirety, from start to finish. Open up the bottle and settle down as it’s a performance like any other. Maybe that Radio 2 interviewer was right, and the world just wasn’t ready for Hazards of Love. It’s fair to say that the reception from actual music fans was much more positive than the music press, and by 2019 it is talked about as an underrated and absolute classic.
Musically the record shines. I think it is wonderfully crafted and paints a vivid picture of the narrative. But the story, dare I say, almost doesn’t matter. Repeating musical themes are nothing new. Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Townshend, Waters, Messers Lennon & McCartney – they all did it. Symphonies will use callbacks, call and response, and repetitive phrases throughout. “It is a principle of music to repeat the theme. Repeat and repeat again as the pace mounts.” William Carlos Williams had it right, in words later set by one of music’s most repetition-obsessed composers, Steve Reich in his The Desert Music. (from The Guardian, 2016)
This is why concept and rock opera albums work – their structure and repetition are deeply fundamental to music, and Hazards of Love employs this technique brilliantly. I think it’s true for any music – 45rpm singles released months, sometimes years apart. The best and most memorable are the ones you instantly know belong to the same artist, the same band.
Of course, the story does matter, my point is that musically it would hold up without lyrics, but the vocal performances and lyrics ensure that the story is conjured up beautifully, and it is no exaggeration to say it feels like you have watched a film or read a book after listening to this album. I know what Margaret looks like.
It is rock music at its best, it is folk music at its core, and it is classically structured. I don’t want to attempt dancing about architecture (too late maybe), but all I can say is if you like your music with a bit more intelligence, if Tommy, Quadrophenia, Thick As A Brick, The Wall, or even Jack Orion are your cups of tea, then you will be smitten with The Hazards of Love.