For the Decemberists, some of the indie-pop world's most talented practitioners, "time off" this year has meant tackling the grand and unwieldy genre of rock opera. After the Portland quintet released its breakthrough 2006 record The Crane Wife, which wove elaborate stories of lovelorn sweethearts, fading fortunes, maritime raids, and carefully crafted crimes gone awry with lush arrangements, the Decemberists toured almost continuously for more than a year. And when the band's epic travels finally ended, its members thought it might be nice to slow down and stay home for a bit.
"We had pretty much decided that a lot of 2008 would be mellow," Nate Query, who plays upright and electric bass, percussion, and cello, as well as sings backup in the band, says by phone from his home in Portland.
But "mellow" for the Decemberists is still remarkably motivated. With prolific songwriter and troubadour Colin Meloy leading the way, this hard-working group of musical comrades just couldn't seem to stay out of the studio. Meloy had finished writing an album's worth of new material in June, and by the end of September, the Decemberists had completed recording the anxiously anticipated full-length follow-up to The Crane Wife.
"Colin started writing it as a rock-opera musical. I suppose it could still be a rock opera, but it's not a musical meant for the stage or anything," Query says. "But that was the original idea."
The new record, called Hazards of Love, offers one uninterrupted tale inspired by ominous folk tales, Query says. Though comprised of separate tracks, the songs blend from one to the next, offering an interconnected narrative centered on an ill-fated romance.
"It's a love story and fairy-tale scenario," he says. "I think part of the Hazards of Love thing is referring to, in this case, how love can bring out the sort of evil nature in this guy. It's a pretty dark story, but not completely. There're both sides to it, and there are some pretty songs on it."
And though many of the Decemberists songs' have explored romantic themes with bleak undercurrents, for the most part the group's proclivity for cheery pop has overwhelmed any dreary lyrics (excepting the group's 2004 EP The Tain, a song cycle with a decidedly metal bent). This rock opera, however, takes the Decemberists into more somber territory.
"It's definitely a departure for us in some ways," Query explains. "Compared to previous work we've done, there're a lot more guitars, and it's sort of heavier and riffier and a little more psychedelic I suppose."
As an additional change from past records, which have put Meloy's vocals at the forefront, the Decemberists enlisted two guest vocalists for Hazards of Love, Becky Stark of the ethereal folk group Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden, who heads the dreamy pop project My Brightest Diamond.
Because Hazards won't be released until next spring, and Meloy had a slew of songs that didn't fit in with the plotline, the Decemberists also made time to record a set of tracks to be released this year on seven-inch vinyl as the Always the Bridesmaid: A Singles Series. The first volume in the set, released in October, features "Valerie Plame," an amorous ode to the former CIA-operative. And though simply referencing Plame's name can be a cause for controversy, Meloy wasn't necessarily trying to make a political statement, Query says.
"He just got sort or excited about the way her name sounds and ended up writing a song about it. It's not meant to be particularly timely or topical," Query says. "Mentioning her name is apparently a somewhat political act, just saying it at all. But it's not like the song takes any sort of slant. It's just from the point of view of somebody who falls in love with her now that she's outed and famous. It doesn't hurt that everyone's totally obsessed with politics right now, so I guess it's a good time to release it."
Though the band doesn't typically get political, the Decemberists have performed in support of two candidates this election year. In May, the full band performed at a rally for president-elect Barack Obama and in October, Meloy, Chris Funk, and Jenny Conlee played a fund-raiser for Jeff Merkley, Oregon's Democratic senate hopeful.
"We've mostly steered clear, and we don't want to come off as preachy artists who are telling our fans what to think," Query says. "But it doesn't mean we're necessarily going to be shy about speaking up for what we do believe in. ... We're all pretty fired up this year and excited to get involved."
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