[ROCK OPERA] When called up to the majors for 2006's The Crane Wife, the Decemberists brought their conceptual A-game. For the follow-up, they've gone fully long-form with a 17-part, hourlong rock opera, The Hazards of Love. Literate leader Colin Meloy has cast, as his story's two female characters, sweet-voiced Becky Stark of pop-folkies Lavender Diamond and powerhouse alto Shara Worden, whose nom de rock is My Brightest Diamond. He's penned a shaggy-faun story of young naif William, his equally innocent lover Margaret (Stark), his wicked-witch mother (Worden), and a nasty kidnapper. Meloy plays the lead, then affects a Billie Joe Armstrong sneer for filicidal rapist "The Rake." Previously, the group has rocked hardest foregrounding Jenny Conlee's proggy organ attack—now, the Decemberists are in a metal mood, with guitarists Chris Funk and Meloy engaging in honest-to-goodness dual-ax shredding at several points (which doesn't excuse the Jovi guitar quote in "Margaret in Captivity").
Off they romp, through a verbal Colinscape practically reveling in self-parody. Meloy remains the only living lyricist who'd sing "columbine" about a flower, not a school shooting. But nearing the story's close, as darkness encroaches on the doomed lovers, I'm left unsatisfied—rather than an album's worth of tunes, this feels like one exceedingly long song. Until the end, Meloy and company neglect what's essential to any great rock opera: the killer song(s) that can stand alone. While it's no "Love, Reign o'er Me," album closer "The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)"—featuring Meloy's most vulnerable vocals and indelible melody, heavenly strings and harmonies, and gorgeous pedal steel from Funk—will endure.
While I salute his ambition, I hope this is as far as this particular strain of Meloy's writing goes for now. As a modern evocation of European folk balladry, the album works well enough. But nothing here particularly resonates with contemporary experience; it all feels as costumed as the band's famously fanciful photographs. Doesn't the Decemberists' next challenge lie in the opposite direction—setting its well-oiled machine on the path back to the present? Just as TV news panels solicit historians' perspective on current events, now that Meloy's fully established his period cred, I'm eager to hear him weigh in on the here and now. .
The Hazards of Love hits record stores Tuesday, March 24. The Decemberists will sign copies of the album and give away limited edition posters at Music Millennium at 6 pm Tuesday.