The Decemberists’ newest album, “The Hazards of Love,” begins with almost a minute of near-complete silence. Slowly, an electrically charged hum swells in the background, a wavering organ shrieks a few eerie notes and a ghostly choir wails. The stage is set.
Over the next 16 tracks, the band (led by nasal-voiced frontman Colin Meloy) will stage a complex, operatic spectacle. Drawing on their trademark hyperliterate lyrics, obscure folk references and intricately layered instrumentation, with “Hazards” the Decemberists finally achieve the concept album promised by 2004’s “The Tain EP” and 2006’s “The Crane Wife.”
As far as I can tell, the plot begins when a young girl named Margaret is impregnated by a shape-shifting fawn; she then runs away to the forest with her lover, William (who is also the fawn?). Even with the lyric booklet at hand, Meloy’s esoteric wordplay is hard to follow, and it just gets more complicated. The forest queen (who is also William’s foster mother?) teams up with the villainous Rake (who killed his three children?) to abduct Margaret to the far side of a wild river. William vows to save her (and then they both drown?).
Somehow it works. Whereas the band’s isolated attempts at long-form narrative songs on “The Crane Wife” only resulted in an annoyingly fragmented album, “Hazards” commits fully to its conceit and is far more successful. The album is a cohesive whole, with musical phrases and themes that echo from song to song. Heavy, almost metal, guitar riffs drive much of the disc, but interludes like the folksy acoustic ballad “Isn’t It A Lovely Night” add tension to the tale. What results is an intricate musical world for the album’s strange characters to inhabit.
Although Meloy sings most of the male roles, the supremely talented Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond guest star as the female voices. Stark offers her piercing soprano as Margaret, and Worden is breathtaking as the throaty, shrieking queen of the forest. On “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing,” her ferocious vocals are a perfect complement to the song’s sinewy bass and crunchy guitars.
Yes, the poppy singles that stood out on the band’s previous albums are gone. Because the album tells just one long story, no song really stands on its own. “The Rake’s Song” tells a fairly complete narrative and the raging sing-along chorus is catchy enough, but “Hazards” offers no contained, crowd-pleasing sound bites like “Sixteen Military Wives,” “O Valencia!” or “The Chimbley Sweep.”
Instead, “Hazards” feels like a holistic novel — the idea of pulling a single out of the album seems akin to reading just one chapter of a book: while it might give a general idea of the author’s style and the novel’s content, it is unsatisfying. “Hazards,” then, must be heard (read?) from start to finish. Dictionary in hand.