Remember how I said that there’s rarely any room in popular culture for a band that makes intellectual music and requires some slight bit of effort on the listener’s part? I think I was talking about it just yesterday. I was pointing out how amazing is the popularity of Jethro Tull, despite the fact that they make references to classical music that don’t take the form of looped samples. JTull has been dormant for a long time, and really brainy rock stars are in short supply in these dark days. Well, now we have The Decemberists, from their name to their lyrics a band notable for lack of mindlessness.
The first time I heard the Decemberists (yeah, they’re one of those bands) was in 2005, when NPR played Song For Myla Goldberg as the theme music for an interview with Myla Goldberg (I like how NPR does that). I thought “huh, clever” and took a mental note. Very serindipitous and appropriate, right? The second time I heard the Decemberists was in 2007, when Legionnaire’s Lament came on the air on WUVT (greatest. radio. station. ever. BTW). That was a real “Who IS this?!” moment. Now I have all their albums and I’ve been listening to them every day. (Incessantly listening to the same two albums is a traditional rite of passage for groups on their way to being canonized [by me]). I always get the feeling that this is music I’ve been listening to all my life, not in the sense that it’s derivative but that it’s so sympatico. It’s one of the best feelings in life to discover a new thing that fits in with my world (to paraphrase Syd Barrett).
When The Crane Wife was released in 2006, some clever wag called it “the best Jethro Tull album since Heavy Horses”. (See, I was going somewhere with this talking of JTull). I’m not sure how he meant it, but I say it’s the highest of compliments. And he’s right. On The Hazards Of Love it’s even more evident. They really recall Jethro Tull at their most epic, in the best possible way. The Hazards of Love is a concept album. No one’s made a concept album in two decades, and the form is unlikely to make a comeback, especially since the album itself is a threatened species. I’ve gotten used to just clicking ‘shuffle’ and playing my favorite songs at random. It’s so pleasantly surprising to find an album that requires to be played all the way through in a specific order. At first I couldn’t figure out what exactly the concept was, except that there were several characters voiced by different singers. After a few hundred listens, I’ve got it straight. Hazards is a fairy tale, in the grimmest Brothers Grimm tradition. Not to spoil it for you, but it’s a love story in which an ‘amorous entwine’ with a changeling leads to nothing good for the heroine. You need to discover it for yourself. I will say I can’t think of any other album that makes such a powerful emotional impact.
I’ve already missed two chances to see the Decemberists play. They played SXSW this spring. I had way too much chaos going on in my life to even think about doing SXSW. I had another chance with ACL, but I had to make a sophie’s choice of which day I would attend, and Dead Weather day won. I have high hopes for the future, though. Judging from what I’ve seen on the ‘Tube, Colin Meloy isn’t going to be canonized as one of the greatest rock stars. Sorry. For one thing, he has an emo haircut. Emo haircuts are so over. They are all disappointingly normal looking, and they can’t even come up with neat uniforms. You know I judge rockers by their style. The Decemberists seriously need to dress better. What is it with these lazy bands these days who think it’s ok to just roll up on stage in civilian clothes? Don’t they know they have a civic duty? God that bugs me. Yeah, I’m sorely bummed out because Colin Meloy isn’t sexy enough.
And after all that, I leave you with a two minute fragment of a song. That should be enough. It reperesents the spirit of the album pretty well. There’s the sonic contrast of folky softness and very ‘eavy rock. There’s the smarty smart smartypants lyrics that you can’t imagine anyone ever singing until he sings them and they sound great. (I always knew the words “irascible blackguard” would some day make it into a song, didn’t you?). One little thing bothers me. “Our heroine withdraws to the Taiga” in search of her true love. I’m assuming that Mr Meloy with his huge vocabulary knows what Taiga is. Surely he is aware that taiga is a frozen inhospitable terrain ill suited to erotic frolics. Just a quibble.