I bought the Decemberists’ new(ish) album, called The Hazards of Love, last Wednesday. That night, I drove from Westport, CT, to Charlottesville, VA–then to Williamsburg, VA, and all the way back to Connecticut the following Sunday. I’d say I listened to this album all the way through about eight times.
It’s incredible. Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy says the piece was “initially conceived as a musical,” but that he ditched the stage idea and made a prog concept album instead (interview at Paste Magazine). All I could think of when listening to it was the power of storytelling.
I’ve never been a huge Tolkien or George MacDonald fan, so I missed the fantasy novel/Christian allegory bandwagon. But this album uses a rather fantastical plotline to plumb the emotional depths of some of the most fundamental human relationships–mother and son, boy and girl, father and children.
The story begins with the wilderness wanderings of Margaret, the female muse of the story. Enter William. First a white fawn, then a human, William is the amorous counterpart to Margaret. After Margaret stoops to help the fallen fawn, the two fall in love and Margaret gets pregnant. (NOTE: Margaret got pregnant after William shape-shifted into a man. There is a lot of oddity in this album, as in the Decemberists’ repertoire, but bestiality is not one. As we learn in “The Queen’s Rebuke” (Track 12), William is a fawn by day and a man by night.)
Now the story gets interesting. William was orphaned in the woods as a child, and the evil (yet understandably maternal) Queen of the Forest took him in and raised him as one of her creatures. (This may explain William’s shape-shifting.) But the Queen catches William and Margaret in the act of love. Being anxious about losing William, thereby losing her control over one of her creatures, the Queen forbids William to venture into the forest for nightly rendezvouses with Margaret. William strikes a deal with the Queen (oh, isn’t the conflict always clothed in bargains?) to let him free for one night; in return, he pledges loyalty to the Queen forever–he will spend every night thereafter with her alone.
We’ve already heard William plot to run away with Margaret, so this set of affairs is not terribly surprising. But then comes a turn of events that throws our expectations out the door.
Enter The Rake. The Rake is viler even than the Queen. We heard the backstory of how the Rake became so vile (hint: it involves killing his own children), and then we hear that the Rake has abducted Margaret and fled with her to a raging river. The Queen, seeing that this state of things may be beneficial to her, aids the Rake in his crossing of the river.
But William is not far behind. He tracks Margaret from her singing of a reprise of “The Hazards of Love 1” (Track 2), but when he gets to the river, he cannot cross. So he himself sings. His song barters with the river to let him pass in exchange for his “precious bones” when he returns. Meanwhile, the Rake is driven mad by the ghosts of his children, and Margaret waits faithfully for William’s rescue.
Here the story grows at once jubilant and tragic. The two lovers are reunited, but–owing to William’s outstanding debts to the Queen and to the river–cannot remain together. They know their love is doomed, and they dutifully embrace this fact by plunging themselves, arms thrown around each other’s necks, into the untamed waters. (Not, though, before they conduct an impromptu wedding by the shore.)
The title track(s) is absolutely classic. But the best song, in my opinion, is Track 8, “The Wanting Comes in Waves / Repaid.” It presents William’s plea to be free next to the Queen’s offense at having another woman come between her and her (adopted) son. Meloy sings William’s part, while Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond gives voice to the Queen. The result is deeply moving, like musical fireworks.
To give y’all a taste, I’m posting the second “Hazards of Love” track, subtitled “Wager All” because this is where William pledges fidelity to Margaret–foreshadowing his attempted escape from the Queen later.