Pre-Screening: The Decemberists

Album: The Hazards of Love
Artist: The Decemberists
Label: Capitol Records
Due Out: March 24th

In their humble beginnings, The Decemberists were folky and at times fragile. They consistently released outstanding albums, but aside from Colin Meloy's ever-present dark sense of humor and theatrics, they had very little edge. With The Crane Wife, however, the band started moving in a direction that showcased their wide array of rock influences, accented by the traditional non-rock instrumentation that they had previously relied so heavily upon, to create a sound that was, in Meloy's own words, "massive". This goes double on their newest release, The Hazards of Love.

The album starts with a rising instrumental, "Prelude ", which introduces the first full song of the album, "The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone)". Similar to the "Crane Wife" series on the last record, it lays out the story, and contains elements that will later be repeated throughout the album. The next two tracks, "A Bower Scene" and "Won't Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)", seem to be almost sister songs. They introduce the alternating, male and female narrative that is loosely present from beginning to end (female vocals by Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond), as well as intense overdriven guitars, which are a near-constant aspect of this record.

The next track, "The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)", continues where the first installment left off, but is immediately more memorable. It's a catchy and urgent song that cautions about exactly what the title suggests. This is followed by the short and haunting banjo and string interlude, "The Queen's Approach", and then one of the album's more beautiful moments, "Isn't It a Lovely Night". It's a duet between Meloy and Diamond that comes off like a song from a musical. Its romantic, Italian-style accordion conjures images of an intimate moonlit stroll through the greenery. It's definitely one of the brighter moments as well. Next is one of my personal favorites "The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid". It's one of the loudest and most interestingly crafted on the album. Most notable is the background vocals which are reminiscent of the opening moments of the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind" during the chorus.

After "An Interlude", "The Rake's Song" keeps up the energy with pounding percussion, muffled screams of "alright!", and a steady guitar line. If this is the only song you hear off of Hazards before delving into the full album, you will have a pretty good feel for the general idea. The tense, "The Abduction of Margaret", follows in that vein, but never fully opens up. Rather, it teases you with glimpses of the full potential in small flare-ups until the final seconds, and leads directly into the melodic but thrashing "The Queens Rebuke / The Crossing". Still riding this wave, no pun intended, "Annan Water", brings back the energetic "The Chimbley Sweep"-style accordion of their early releases for one of the album's highlights.

More churning guitars continue on "Margaret in Captivity", and then, "The Hazards of Love 3", the loudest of the "Hazards" song series. Next, we have the interesting placement of "The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise)", which is basically the hook of the original, surrounded in a massively layered cocoon of sound. It effectively puts a close on the main themes and leaves only a single loose end to be tied by a proper final track. With a western lap-steel interlude in the middle, the forward-looking closer, "The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)", is exactly what the album called for. It's nothing too extravagant, but beautiful nonetheless.

If I can give any recommendation for the first time you listen to this album, I would listen to it loudly. There are so many small details and melodies that can only truly be appreciated at higher volumes. As a whole, I'm extremely impressed. In some ways, I'm glad I didn't really know what to expect going into this one. I hadn't even heard any of the new songs that were posted on the band's Myspace in recent weeks. But being that the album is very much a single story played out over its entirety, it was good to hear it all at once without preconceptions. This is without a doubt in my top three for this year. The Decemberists have never been a band to disappoint the listening public, and this album is no exception. In fact, it's near-perfect.

Rating: 9.0/10.0

Best Track: "The Rake's Song"

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