Friday, January 17, 2014

Decemberists -- "The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone)" (2009)

And there she came upon
A white and wounded fawn

So begins The Hazards of Love, the 2009 album by the Decemberists.  The tale that the songs on this album tell is full of magic, and the effect those songs have on the listener is magical as well.

At least that's the effect the album has on me.  My musical judgment is far from unerring, but sometimes you just know it when you're right about something -- and I know I'm right about The Hazards of Love.

It's intriguing and captivating and full of wonder, and I can't get enough of it.  I wish it was twice as long as it is.  (Or ten times as long.) 

Why is The Hazards of Love so powerful?  Because it's not a just a collection of songs.  

Every song on the album carries more weight because every song helps tell a story -- with a plot, and compelling characters, and themes that have universal significance and appeal.  Like a successful opera or Broadway musical, the whole of The Hazards of Love is much greater than the sum of its individual parts.

The Decemberists
Before we get to our featured song, here's a little background info that may be helpful (courtesy of the Los Angeles Times):

“The Hazards of Love” is ultimately a tale of “baby, I love you” -- though a fantastic one, featuring shape-shifters, a forest queen and a lass who gets tossed into the thistle.  The hour-long song suite -- voiced by [Decemberists' lead singer and chief songwriter, Colin] Meloy in the roles of the fawn-turned-human lover William and the villainous Rake, and guest singers Becky Stark [of Lavender Diamond] as Margaret, the ingénue, and Shara Worden [of My Brightest Diamond] as the evil Queen -- is a reconstructed fairy tale, in which lost virtue leads to tragedy, then supernatural redemption. . . .

[Its plot] renders “The Hazards of Love” as much a pre-Raphaelite work as a prog-rock one. Margaret encounters William, shape-shifted as a fawn; they have sex and she becomes pregnant. Their love is threatened by the amoral Rake and the jealous Queen, a typically possessive fairy tale adoptive mom. The lovers finally find peace in a watery death. 

[NOTE: this review actually refers to William not as a "fawn," but as a "faun" -- which is a very different thing.  I changed it to "fawn" because that is the word that appears in the lyrics on the Decemberists' website.]

Today we're featuring the album's second track and first song.  (The album opens with an instrumental prelude.)  It's the first of three songs on the album titled "The Hazards of Love," each of which has a different subtitle.  

We usually use "hazard" to describe something that is potentially dangerous -- like a health hazard, or a fire hazard.

Singer/songwriter Colin Meloy
But the word derives from an Arabic word meaning dice.  As the songwriter uses it in The Hazards of Love, it refers not just to the dangers of love, but to the unforeseeable nature of love.  When you fall in love, you're taking a chance.  You risk much, hoping that your gamble pays off and you're a big winner.

Taking that risk may be frightening.  But it's the only smart play -- you can't win if you don't take a risk, so not taking a chance is the dumbest play of all.  This seems like a paradox, but it's really the most obvious thing in the world.

As Elaine May put it, "The only safe thing is to take a chance."  Erica Jung said something similar: "If you don't risk anything, you risk even more."

William -- the hero of The Hazards of Love -- realizes this, and fearlessly steps up to the table and places the bet when it's his turn to play.  The outcome of his wager is sort of a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty proposition -- he's a winner, but he's also a loser.

[NOTE:  The Hazards of Love has inspired a considerable amount of fan art, some of which will be featured in this and future 2 or 3 lines posts about it.]

"The Hazards of Love,"
by Hannah Hillam
But he would have been a greater loser if he had settled for the status quo instead of accepting the hazards of love and taking his chances.  

The subtitle of our featured track is "The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone," which is a pretty good indicator of the wonderfully poetic and archaic-sounding lyrics Meloy has written.  

We meet our heroine, a lovely young maiden named Margaret, at the beginning of the song:

My true love went riding out 
In white and green and gray
Past the pale of Offa's Wall
Where she was wont to stray
And there she came upon
A white and wounded fawn

"The Hazards of Love," by Andromoda
[Note: "Offa's Wall" -- which is usually called "Offa's Dyke" -- is a massive linear earthwork that roughly delineates the border between England and Wales.  It is believed to have been built in the 8th century.]

Margaret stops to give the wounded deer succor, but receives quite a surprise.  ("Succor"?  I'm starting to sound like the Decemberists.)

She being full of charity
A credit to her sex
Sought to right the fawn's hind legs
When here her plans were vexed
The taiga shifted strange
The beast began to change

Aaahh . . . the plot begins to thicken.

Unless my plans are vexed, we'll explore The Hazards of Love more deeply in the next 2 or 3 lines -- and the next one, and the one after that.  But right now, you need to hear this song:

[NOTE: This is the first in a series of posts about the Decemberists' The Hazards of Love.  Click here to read the next in the series.]

You can buy this song from Amazon, but I think you'll be happier if you buy the entire album.  (It's only five bucks, boys and girls.)

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