Unexpected musical pairings don’t always fly when they’re first realized.
There are those, of course, that just never take off, and for good reason — like Scarlett Johansson and Tom Waits covers, or the embarrassing mid-’80s Bowie/Jagger collaboration. But others, like Wilco and eclectic experimentation on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Alison Krauss-brand bluegrass with the Zeppelin rock vox of Robert Plant, however doubted, end aptly up in the musical stratosphere.
The Decemberists’ latest album The Hazards of Love takes up company with the latter. In an unanticipated departure, the Portland, Ore., band divorces its spirited folk rock repertoire for a musically amalgamated concept album, initially intended as a stage musical.
The album recalls the tale of a lady called Margaret and her mystical, often sexual forest exploits. After falling in love with forest-dweller William, she comes under scrutiny by his mother, the Queen of the forest, who fails to cease Margaret’s abduction by a dangerous villain, The Rake. William searches for and reunites with Margaret, and they reignite their love before dying, together.
Colin Meloy, singer and songwriter for the band, understands the risk of taking such a conceptual diversion, but says the album’s just not intended for everybody. “I can totally understand why this record would not be to someone’s taste. I knew from the very beginning this was going to be a pretty polarizing record and that some people would hate it and some people will love it.”
Hazards has polarized the critics, that have produced largely mixed reviews of the album. But Meloy maintains his band is just a quick and easy target because of the early praise it’s garnered. And estranging critics or The Decemberists’ fans is fine by Meloy. “If we do alienate people, they would be the sort of people that would be restricting our creativity to begin with.”
It’s all part of the solid precedent he says the band has set for itself. “People are welcome to come along,” he says, “But we’re going to be doing what we want and not kowtowing to accessibility or tastes.”
Non-conformity is as present in Hazards’ format as its sound. Added to the folk music the band is noted for, there are sure signs of metal, progressive rock and hard rock on the album, a testament to Meloy’s dissent against the tension between folk and metal.
“I think they’re more akin than some people give them credit for, especially when you’re dealing with classic metal from the ‘70s and the British folk revival,” he says. “At that time, metal and folk music were these sort of weird bastard cousins, walking around hand in hand.”
Similarly smitten should be an artist’s work to their influences, says Meloy, no matter the expected reception. “Anybody writing songs and making music should be making music that is, in some way, the sum total of their record collection,” he says.
“By and large, I feel like I’m making the music that I want to make and that I should make. I hope we can continue doing that.”