Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Decemberists - Hazards of Love

This review is mostly a response to the reviews that are already out there for this album. It's also my first music review. But let me state this: I've been playing music since I was six, and can play to differing degrees the piano, cello, and guitar, and I sing as well. I've been listening to music forever. I've played everything from Bach's cello suites to a cover of Neutral Milk Hotel's Ghost. So I feel fairly qualified when talking about music. Most of my interest is with classical, indie, and rock (I'm not big on mainstream pop, country, and most rap).

I've been listening consistently to The Decemberists since The Crane Wife came out a couple years ago, and they are one of my favorite bands. But I think their most recent album has been getting a lot of undeserved hate. And I hate to say it, but for every negative review I'm reading (and they say mostly the same things) I want to shake my head and say how dumb today's music listeners have become. And I was so proud of our music generation!

The thing that bugs me about the current reviews (such as Pitchfork's) is that there's a concensus that the album is 'too much work, not enough payoff'. Wait, what?

Did you ever listen to The Wall? Yeah? Epic Pink Floyd rock opera? You see, The Hazards of Love is the closest thing to a rock opera you're going to see around today. That means that the songs are going to be more connected than most albums, and the songs generally continue from one to the next without much in the way of a break. The story is a sort of medieval/victorian/whatever affair based around a changeling-like figure and his lover. There's wordplay and archaic words. So basically, this album is inaccessible to people because it's not like every single other thing out right now. Because there's not always a freaking chorus. Because the songs have continuity and a shared theme.

I think part of it is that people today have become so single-focused and can't see music in the context of albums anymore. People don't even listen to the radio as much any more, but they still only seem to want to have one-song tastes of artists. When they're presented with a whole album that's meant to fit together, suddenly people cry, "This is too hard!"

I don't understand why this album seems so hard--is it because you have to listen to it more than once to grasp the story behind it? Does that make it impossible to listen to? I think another part of it is that the sound is more electric than the sound of Picaresque and The Crane Wife. So the reviewers also can't handle a change in sound. This isn't an unfamiliar phenomenon to me. Sometimes the post-breakout albums suffer from a slight change in sound, across the board. Some examples: Evanescence had its breakout album Fallen, but when it was given greater musical resources, The Open Door fell a little flat. For Death Cab for Cutie, they struck gold with a new sound in Transatlanticism and Plans--then Narrow Stairs was a massive disappointment (to me, at least--these are mostly my opinions). But I think The Hazards of Love is in a different strain--unappreciated changes in sound. Some better-known examples: haters of MCR's The Black Parade, which sounded more 'mainstream' to some but sounded to me just to be utilizing its resources to have some more musical diversity. My other example is the shift in sound that occured halfway through Of Montreal's Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and took over in Skeletal Lamping. Skeletal Lamping was really difficult for me to get into after listening to The Sunlandic Twins so much, but after a while I got used to the sound change, and loved the sound change. Now it's one of my most-played albums. Sometimes it actually takes more than one playthrough to like something. And I still don't get why The Hazards of Love is 'difficult'; Atom Heart Mother is difficult. For me, The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place is difficult. Hell, even some classical music (like Debussy's string quartet) could be considered 'difficult'. But The Hazards of Love is downright conventional compared to a lot of the stuff I've listened to. If your musical repertoire is Coldplay and Nickleback and Kelly Clarkson and then of course The Hazards of Love is going to be inaccessible! You haven't been listening to music! You've been dropping in on music for a visit! At the prison! On the other side of bulletproof glass! Musical Nerd Rage!

Take off those waders and go buy some Pink Floyd and get back to me later.