Tag Archives: the hazards of love

The Hazards of Life

It seems to be a bit of a theme that recent posts start with an apology for absence, but at least this time there’s a decent excuse. After spending most of June on a fantastic holiday in Canada I managed to fall off a mountain bike on a particularly tricky and apparently notorious stretch of the Spray River Trail in Banff on the last day, breaking my left elbow and badly spraining my forearm and wrist.

Consequently blogging’s been on the back burner since arriving home, as one-handed typing doesn’t really lend itself to anything other than the absolutely necessary. Such as work!

The accident didn’t spoil an amazing holiday though, and the various great experiences and gorgeous scenery we enjoyed were enhanced by a varied and uniformly excellent soundtrack, thanks in part to the fact that Jo and Gary (sister and brother-in-law) our travelling companions have a very similar taste in music to mine.

There were many music-related highlights of the trip, particularly the day we drove along the Icefield Parkway from Jasper to Banff to an exclusively Canadian soundtrack, including Joni Mitchell, Great Lake Swimmers and Arcade Fire. However, one particular album emerged as a firm favourite from the holiday, and I was delighted that Gary in particular shared my enthusiasm for it.

Beware: Hazards ahead

Beware: Hazards ahead

‘The Hazards of Love’ by The Decemberists. And herein hangs many a tale.

Although I’d had a couple of sneak previews of it on Spotify, I’d been deliberately saving this new album for the holiday when I could give it the time, attention and repeated plays it undoubtedly deserved. Regular readers will know that it was thanks to reading rave reviews of this album and interviews with the band before its release that led me to research and discover the delights of their back catalogue, to the extent that they have now surpassed all other bands in my affections.

Acquiring this greatly acclaimed masterpiece, “The best record ever made” according to one of the writers for The Word magazine, was clearly a priority and I wasted no time when that very publication advertised a free copy of the CD in exchange for placing a subscription. I did so on my birthday in April, and eagerly awaited my copy of the May issue. Which arrived with no CD.

After ringing the magazine I discovered the CD would be sent separately within 28 days. Cue 28 days of very impatient huffing and puffing when it never materialised. What made it worse was that thanks to the generosity of friends and family for my birthday I’d purchased about 15 other albums with my many vouchers, none of which I wanted as much as this one. I could have bought it so many times over, but decided to wait for the free copy.

Except, my patience finally evaporated the day before we went on holiday and I downloaded the album from itunes instead. I couldn’t wait any longer, and I listened to it all the way through for the first time on the flight to Vancouver the next day. It was awesome, and I listened to it all again straight afterwards. It’s 17 tracks and well over an hour long. And well worth the wait.

You can read reviews here and here, and if you’re not familiar with The Decemberists it’s probably not the best place to start, but it is lyrically, musically and conceptually a stunning piece of work. It’s a post-modern concept album, telling the tale of a maiden ‘romanced’ by a shape-shifting beast in an enchanted forest and a rake, an ‘irascible blackguard’ who unburdens himself of parental responsibility by murdering his offspring.

Nice.

Oh, and there’s also a pretty scary sounding Queen in there somewhere, who holds the key to the mysterious provenance of the shape-shifting fawn/human.

Steps it ain’t.

On a first listen it might seem a bit much, and be rather overpowering, but repeated listens reveal more and more layers, you start to notice repeated musical themes and motifs and the story becomes clearer. Many of the songs are outstanding on their own, but when you hear them in order and in context they are somehow even more impressive. It’s a grower!

There’s something special about sharing your excitement about music you’ve discovered, and the first time we listened to this album in our fabulous suite at L’Hermitage hotel in Vancouver it was brilliant watching and hearing Gary’s reactions – his overwhelming positivity added even more to my enjoyment. We had a couple of repeat performances during the holiday, most notably on the last day after we’d got back from the hospital and I was struggling with the pain. Laughter is often the best medicine, but this time it was music.

And today, finally and almost miraculously, my free copy of ‘The Hazards of Love’ arrived in the post. It had taken another phone call, and the rectification of a shocking administrative error, but at last, the spoils.

And so ends a tale of acquisition almost as lengthy, rambling and unexpected as that depicted by the album itself.

Bet you wish I’d broken my right elbow too!

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Now playing: The Crane Wife by The Decemberists

Current favourite albums: 3 of 3

In third place this month, due to the strength of competition, it’s:

The Crane Wife: Nothing conventional here

The Crane Wife: a veritable plethora of lyrical wizardry

The Decemberists – The Crane Wife

My route to this album is a similar story to that of the Great Lake Swimmers. Initially I’d read a great deal of hype and excited press talk about the impending release of The Decemberists‘ new release ‘The Hazards Of Love‘, and whilst waiting for that to become available I decided to investigate their back catalogue.

On paper, this lot are pretty much my dream band.

Interesting name – check. Acoustic folk-rock music – check. Hailing from Portland, Oregon and thus very much American – check. Singer with distinctive, earnest vocal style – check. Wordy, literate lyrics like you’ve never known – check. You get the idea …..

Their most successful album before this one was called ‘Picaresque’. How many bands around these days can boast a leader like Colin Meloy, who actually knows what that word means (“telling the adventures of a usually likeable rogue in separate, loosely connected episodes” according to my dictionary) let alone can craft a record that includes a barrow boy, a bagman and a song about two mariners who find themselves inside the same whale, enabling one to enact a revenge on the other. Never mind one that sounds utterly brilliant into the bargain.

So, how do you follow that? Well, it would seem, by cramming your next album with an even more eclectic cast of characters and intriguing tales, including two tracks based around a Japanese folk tale involving a crane, an arrow, a beautiful woman and some clandestine weaving. Other stories include a pair of star-crossed lovers whose ending is predictably bloody and tragic in ‘O Valencia!’ and a sinister lullaby ‘Shankhill Butchers’ which warns that the horrific protagonists of the title are “sharpening their cleavers and their knives and taking their whisky by the pint” advising that they “want to catch you awake”.

Even in the midst of this horrible tale, accompanied by chains shaking in the background, Meloy has the poise to write the following lines: “They used to be just like me and you/They used to be sweet little boys/But something went horribly askew/Now killing is their only source of joy”.

Maybe it’s just because I’m a words man, but that “something went horribly askew” just makes me grin from ear to ear. I’m possibly just responding to a kindred spirit – after all I did once shout “Referee, that’s outrageous!” at a football match whilst surrounded by thugs hurling expletives left right and centre. It’s not just the clever use of words though – this song is a good example of the way he matches the lyrics to the tune to create a macabre masterpiece that you can’t help singing along to. Apparently someone has calculated that there are about 100 murders in The Decemberists’ songs so far, yet the tunes are often so beautiful and singable that you often don’t realise the horrors concealed within.

Only Colin Meloy could include the line “By land, by sea, by dirigible” in the jaunty ‘Sons and Daughters’ or create a beautiful, passionate duet in ‘Yankee Bayonet ( I will be home then)’ that turns out to be between a woman and her lover who died during the Civil War. It’s not your (very) average Kaiser Chiefs compendium of semi-literate urban brawling.

Suffice to say this is a fantastic album, and rather than attempt a full review I’ll let you see what Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and the rest (via Metacritic) loved about it.

It’s a grower, as is the new album, and the combination of an exciting vision, great musicianship and those erudite and beautifully crafted lyrics seal the deal to make The Decemberists my favourite band in reality too, despite Mr Meloy’s arrogant parpings on Twitter.

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