For this review, I have something a little different to bring to the table! That’s right, I’m reviewing, not a novel, but a music album! (An album almost a decade old, at that.)
I haven’t read any books lately which are suitable for reviewing on this particular blog. On the other hand, I recently found this old Decemberists album at my library (how dare they withhold an album by one of my favorites for so long?), which is not a traditional album, but, in fact, a rock-folk opera.
Naturally, one of my first thoughts was, I’m so going to review this on Symma.
TWO WARNINGS: 1) I will not be holding back on spoilers in this review. I figure since it’s an album, no one will mind too much. 2) Two songs, “The Queen’s Rebuke / The Crossing” and “Margaret in Captivity,” make brief but direct mentions of a planned sexual assault. Obviously, if that’s going to be a problem for your mental/emotional state, I’d steer clear of this album, since every song contains crucial storytelling information, and I’m not sure how the album would play without them, especially “The Queen’s Rebuke.”
The Hazards of Love is a love story, that of a woman named Margaret and her own true love, the shapeshifting young William. While Margaret is relatively unburdened by backstory, William is the ward of the Queen of the Woods, a powerful fairy/fey/elf/spirit, and, according to Wikipedia’s assessment, she wants William to become fully immortal, not waste his time on a mortal woman. It’s too late for that, since Margaret is pregnant already, but William makes a deal with his terrifying mother nevertheless: if he can see Margaret one more night, he’ll return to the Queen in the morning, and, in embracing immortality, repay his debt to her for saving his life.
That’s where the Rake comes in, but we’ll get to him. Man, will we get to him.
The story is a relatively simple fairytale: girl meets wounded fawn in the taiga, wounded fawn is actually a shapeshifting boy, girl and boy do what some couples might do in the woods in a fairytale like this, and forces both unhuman and inhuman get in the way of their happy ending. Such a thin concept might be easily run into the ground in a novel after fifty pages, but as a folk-rock opera, it’s heightened, turned into a gauzy, hole-punched myth that leaves you wanting just one more answer, one more detail. The limited number of songs and the constraints of songwriting in the album’s little collection of genres make the storytelling sparse and full of double meaning; as it should be, the music’s mode and mood is equally responsible for narrative weight as the lyrics are. There is just enough specificity to provide the plot’s frame, but much of what happens within that frame is left for the listener to fill in themselves.
It’s not a perfectly told story by any means, and the album had its detractors back in the day, but I’ve gotten pretty fond of it, holes and all.
I love the entire concept of William, the concrete details and the facts of him that are left to the imagination. In “The Wanting Comes In Waves / Repaid,” about halfway through the album, we learn that the Queen took William from the world as a baby; whether he was sick, or dead, or otherwise – “From cancer I cradled you,” she sings, and says that he was “entombed in a cradle of clay” – we don’t know. Either way, she gave him the ability to take the shape of a white fawn; it was in this shape that he met Margaret at the very beginning of the story.
As I said, Wikipedia claims that the Queen wanted William to stay and become fully immortal, as she is, rather than continue on with Margaret. This is what brings about a key moment in the story: William’s deal with the Queen that, after one more night with Margaret, he’ll return and repay his debt to his mother by becoming fully immortal. I, personally, see no reason to believe that William isn’t fully immortal already; my theory is that he and Margaret were planning to marry that night, and he wanted to go through with it even if he had to leave his mortal beloved behind after that.
But that’s just me.
The Queen, despite being without objective morals or respect for life, is my favorite. Maybe it’s because she is so terrifyingly subjective in her judgment of the rest of the characters; I don’t like her, but I find her presentation the most fascinating, if only because I’ve always had a weak spot for those powerful creatures of folklore who work only towards their own desires, no matter how selfish. The Queen is the very picture (sound?) of faerie amorality, and I love her ruthlessness.
Perhaps because he’s human, the Rake’s greediness seems even more corrupted, though still abhorrently fascinating. His introduction, “The Rake’s Song,” is so horrifying, so darkly theatrical, that I started laughing when I first listened to it while reading the lyrics. I have no affection for him – he’s a monster in every conceivable way, without the excuse of being other than human – but he fulfills his role perfectly, and the way he constructs his own downfall is both obvious and satisfying.
What’s there to say about poor Margaret? As heroines in many stories such as these, she doesn’t say much that’s not about her lover. Her lyrics are lovely, and her voice suits her character (more on that soon), but there is just not much to her, otherwise. One’s reminded of the woman in that one panel of La Dame a la licorne, holding the supernatural creature on her lap and doing very little else. It’s perhaps the most significant disappointment of the album that Margaret, one whole half of the love story, is given so little to say.
I asked my brother, a graduate of the Dark Horse music production program in Nashville, how I should approach reviewing the actual music part of an album if I don’t know much about music. He said I should “reinvent the album review” and “not overthink it.” Here goes.
As in any given Decemberists album, the music of The Hazards of Love comes from a few different genres. The strongest influences are folk – alternative folk, folk rock, maybe prog folk. There are songs or sections played with harpsichords and organs, used to spectacular effect to create very specific moods (stilted and muffled with the harpsichord, ominously religious with the organ). Then there are the Queen’s songs, played with riotous electric guitar, instantly overpowering any other voice in the album, if not in emotion then in sheer presence.
Beneath even the lyrics and the notes of the songs are the rhythms, the way the music moves. Love songs between Margaret and William sound perhaps the most modern; they flow freer and lighter than the others, retaining the trappings of some vague “traditional” sound, but still less aggressive and more accessible. A synthesizer is present in “Isn’t It a Lovely Night?”, the last happy love song of the album. The Queen’s rock rages are even less bound by meter – making her even more frightening, less in control of herself – but her few songs are so aggressive that “free” becomes an utterly inapplicable adjective. (If I have one complaint about the Queen, it’s that her guest singer, Shara Nova, doesn’t have the kind of beefy voice I’d want behind someone as mysterious and powerful as the Queen. She’s very good, and, in fact, “Repaid” is the first song that made me really pay attention to this album, but I still wish the character had had a little more to her voice.)
So there’s something equally disturbing about the Rake’s songs, as rigidly metered and musically unchanging as they are. Colin Meloy “plays” both William and the Rake, but his vicious enunciation, paired with the eerie repetition of the verses in “The Rake’s Song” and “Margaret In Captivity,” somehow make him very creepy. Is it an impression of control that a man so very depraved has over himself? or is it that the man is so unhinged that he must repeat his music over and over, instead of creating more complex sounds and rhythms? I’m not sure, but every time I listen to “The Rake’s Song,” it gets more unnerving.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite track. In “The Rake’s Song,” we learn that the Rake, in order to free himself from responsibility, murdered his three children. In “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)”, there are screeching violins and three child singers.
Yeah. It’s as amazing as I am insinuating it is. It might be worth listening to this whole album if all you’re interested in are the vengeful child ghosts.
One of my favorite things about musicals and storytelling albums such as this is the ease with which musicians employ comparison and contrast. Reprises bring back phrases with twisted irony or new layers of meaning; songs foreshadow and make the listener squirm with dramatic tension.
One of William’s key phrases early on is “the wanting comes in waves.” It’s a metaphorical statement early on, a pretty turn of phrase but, I thought, a bit odd to fixate on. Then comes “The Queen’s Rebuke” and “Annan Water,” and William’s promise to the river makes his “waves” refrain dreadfully literal. And, while we’re on William, it’s impossible to ignore one of his first songs, “The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)”, in which he, yes, wagers all, just for his love of Margaret… not like that could ever go wrong.
Two songs come just before the peak of the story, one after the other – “The Queen’s Rebuke” and “Annan Water” – which, once and for all, contrast the Queen’s and William’s characters. The Queen parts the waters of the river Annan so that the Rake may escape with Margaret and eventually kill her; when William reaches the water, he pledges his own life to save Margaret’s. In the end, Queen loses what she had killed to keep; William, in death, gains what he wanted to save. It’s a heartbreaking twist.
Finally, because this review is already too long, a final note, this time, of comparison. In the beginning of the story, William calls to his love as she makes her way to him: “O my own true love! / O my own true love! / Can you hear me, love? / Can you hear me love?” It’s a haunting, distant call, and Margaret echoes it later in “Margaret In Captivity” after her abduction. Finally, in “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned),” our lovers’ final, lovely, impossibly upbeat lovesong, they sing together, in chorus, “But I pulled you and I called you here (Didn’t I, didn’t I, didn’t I?) / And I caught you and I brought you here (Didn’t I, didn’t I, didn’t I?)” It’s the single running thread between them, that act of calling to each other with such faith and desperation that, even in death, they are together.
The Hazards of Love isn’t a great album on the first listen, not when you don’t read the lyrics and understand what parts of the story Colin Meloy gives you (much less try to elaborate on the parts of the story he doesn’t give you). While much of the story is, as I said, told through the music and the rhythm and the voice, those audio elements only have their proper weight if you know what’s being said.
Now that I know the story, and I’m emotionally invested in the unanswered questions (such as, “how did William and Margaret end up drowning? Why aren’t they alive?”*) as well as the story given, I think it might be one of my favorite music discoveries of the past few years.
It’s a piecemeal presentation, inescapably modern, but self-consciously classic in a dozen different flavors of “old.” It lays on the border between sincere and schmaltzy. It’s a fairytale, moth-eaten and confused and dedicated to the feeling, not the thinking, of storytelling. Technical details such as time period, backstory, and character arcs are secondary to the sheer experience of all-encompassing love struggling against insatiate violence and greed.
I fully recommend this album, if not as great music then at least as a heartily entertaining exercise in something different. If it’s not Great Art, it’s still art at its most enthusiastic and wholehearted. And, guys, I can’t stress this enough: ghost children.
* My theory: the ghosts of Isaiah, Charlotte, and Dawn destroyed the castle with fire and water; in “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)”, the drums/percussion sound suspiciously like the destruction of a building. The kind of fortress that the Rake mentions in “Margaret In Captivity”? In his haste to rescue Margaret, William ran with her to the river and, forgetting his promise to let it take his life on the return journey, he led her across it (maybe in his deer form). It rushed up to make a wreck of him and it made a wreck of her, too, joining them once and for all.