After 2006's The Crane Wife, it wouldn't have been unfair to wonder if The Decemberists were capable of doing anything new within their chosen aesthetic: shambling ballads rife with Chaucerian wordplay and baroque instrumentation. It seemed like they'd have to integrate some new element in order to remain interesting.
So, with The Hazards of Love, the question is: Does the band take things in a new direction? The answer is both yes and no. On "The Queen's Rebuke/The Crossing," the band adopts a heavy-metal swagger, with psychedelic synth interludes (á la Ray Manzarek) and histrionic guest vocals by Shara Worden.
The biggest innovation is that this is The Decemberists' rock opera, a 17-track tragic romance about impregnated maiden Margaret, her shape-shifting lover William, William's mother The Queen, and the murdering Rake. As each song bleeds into the next, the band thumbs its nose at the contemporary single-track-download era and references a whole set of 1970s prog-rock signifiers.
Certainly tracks like "Annan Water" and "The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)" could have come off any Decemberists album. But it's the insistence on cumulative effect and rock's potential for the theatrical that distinguishes this work. Taken as a whole, The Hazards of Love is an effective, affecting piece of work. When the centerpiece track, "The Wanting Comes in Waves," is re-invoked toward the album's end in a soaring "Reprise," it hits like a spine-tingling epiphany.
The Decemberists' latest may be a variation on a theme, but it's a damn fine one.