The other day, I finally listened to the new Decemberists album, The Hazards of Love, having let the thing sit in my CD pile for as long as possible—until it began to stink up the apartment like a moldering camembert. I don't much care for the Decemberists, the Portland, Ore., quintet led by Colin Meloy. Meloy is a singer-songwriter and self-styled littérateur who loves neo-prog-rock song suites, antique poesy, and his own beautiful mind, not in that order. What began on the 2002 debut Castaways and Cutouts as vaguely entertaining days-of-yore pop—catchy folk-pop songs about prostitutes and pirates and legionnaires —has become an unbearable exercise in indie high-quirkiness, with each new release deepening the impression that Meloy thinks he's Edmund Spenser or, at least, the only rock singer smart enough to keep a copy of The Faerie Queene on his bedside plinth.
The previous Decemberists CD, the critically lionized concept album The Crane Wife (2006), mashed up Japanese folklore and Shakespeare's The Tempest, giving Meloy the opportunity to rhyme Sycorax with parallax. The Hazards of Love is a medieval romance about a maiden who is impregnated when a wounded fawn she encounters in an enchanted wood shape-shifts into a demon-lover. The tale also features a forest witch, a rake, a choir of undead children, allusions to Welsh mythology, and lyrics like "what irascible blackguard/ Is the father."*
There's nothing wrong with such a record per se—I have nothing against musicians dabbling in wacky archaism. There is a noble pop tradition of medievalist gobbledygook: I love me some "Battle of Evermore" and adore Joanna Newsom's Ys, whose flights of pastoral poetry are at least as florid and pretentious as Meloy's. But Led Zeppelin and Joanna Newsom have the courage of their convictions—they're fully emotionally invested in their druids and dream worlds; they mean what they're singing about; they draw you into their fairy tales. Meloy is a gifted composer and arranger; The Hazards of Love expertly toggles between chiming folk and hard-rock crescendos. But the whimsy is suffocating, and the reams of verse seem designed mostly to demonstrate book-learning and to flatter an audience of current and former English majors—listeners who like their pop songs "literate." As for Meloy's obsession with Edward Gorey-esque black comedy, a trend that continues on the new album's "The Rake's Song": Stick with Weill or Sondheim. Or Tom Waits or Stephin Merritt. Or Count von Count.
To save undergraduates hours in the library stacks puzzling through the runes of The Hazards of Love, I herewith (to use a Meloy-ism) offer some Cliff's Notes: an annotated guide to the album's key passages.
1. From "Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)"
Father, I'm not feeling well, the flowers me you fed
Tasted spoiled for suddenly I find that I am dead
I you assure that object-verb inversion is poetic. Verily.
Fifteen lithesome maidens lay
Along in their bower
Fourteen occupations pay
To pass the idle hour
I count three vocabulary words in the passage, all of which may appear on Monday's quiz. Lithesome: pliant, supple, easily flexed. Bower: a lady's boudoir in a medieval castle. Occupation: job, vocation; e.g., poetaster.