Few of their fans ever doubted that Colin Meloy and his Decemberists could—or for that matter, would—create a sprawling, album-length rock opera, but The Hazards of Love gives us the unfortunate answer to a third question: whether or not they should. The album stretches one of Meloy’s usual story-songs out to 17 movements, assigning its guest vocalists with specific characters in the tale of a young woman, the shapeshifter she loves, and the Forest Queen who would see their love undone.
Meloy pulls extensively from British folk-prog and even Black Mountain-aping stoner riffage. But as silly as it sounds to accuse the Decemberists of transparent affectation, the uncharacteristic failure of Meloy’s compositions makes the record’s meandering style hard to take seriously. As recently as this winter’s Always the Bridesmaid singles series, the band’s congenial pretentiousness has been overwhelmed by Meloy’s skills as a songwriter. But The Hazards of Love asks far too much of four or five hooks and a thin idea, and the result is an overconfident, undercooked misfire. The best works in the rock opera’s thin canon typically succeed because the songs work apart from each other as well as they do together (think of Tommy, or The Wall), subtly reintroducing common musical and lyrical themes along the way. The Hazards of Love, on the other hand, takes lazy shortcuts. Save the experimenting for the EPs, guys, and remember that lyrics about amorous centaurs do not a rock opera make.