The Decemberists’s ascendance to major label success has unfortunately done little to rein in their by-now cloying fetish for historical reenactment. Instead, the influx of cash and encouragement has only further freed lead singer Colin Meloy’s overactive imagination, resulting in increasingly daft explorations of nerdy costume drama. Rather than focus on songwriting, the band continues fleshing out these exacting experiments, laboring in period gimmickry, elaborate song structure, and painfully arch language. While The Crane Wife at least pushed this conceit into new sonic territory, The Hazards of Love is the sound of wheels spinning, a feeling made even more irritating by the fact that these are carriage wheels.
The album is straight geek fantasy, with an overcomplicated framing story involving a harried woman “ravaged” by a “shape-shifting animal,” a “forest queen,” and a “cold, lascivious rake.” The idea beyond this is that love is hazardous but ultimately worthwhile, a point that may have been made with far less fanfare. This awkward plunge into grating self-parody is a sign that things may have moved irreparably beyond the cute quirk of Her Majesty… and Castaways and Cutouts, an oppressive air of fey over-construction that cannot be salvaged by racing prog keys or heavy-metal guitar, which swoop in every so often to pluck these songs from the mud. The conceptual focus is pushed further by the hazy borders between songs and the use of repeated motifs, which recalls The Tain, but feels much heavier, creating a feeling of uninterrupted sameness.
Embarrassing vanity projects are one thing; even worse is the presence of guests who should have known better, from Jim James of My Morning Jacket to My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden. Their involvement grants a thankful diversion to Meloy’s nasal delivery and lightly benefits the album, whose enjoyable moments are brief and entirely in spite of the dreadfully plotted dinner-theater concept. From a dreary organ intro to the Bon Jovi-cribbing guitar riff of “Margaret in Captivity,” Hazards of Love personifies potentially workable songs eaten away by overwhelmingly ill-conceived ambition.