Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Hazards of Love and Rock Operas

It was one of those classic mysterioso moments, where I bounced betwixt Target and BestBuy at lunch on Wednesday to see if someone would sell me a copy of The Decemberists' The Hazards of Love for less than $10 (hey, it's a barter economy). I tuned in to the local NPR station, KRCC, and they were playing a recorded live set from SXSW of The Decemberists playing their new rock opera in its entirety. Time to make some real-time comparisons.

The moniker "rock opera" makes me nervous, since it tended to meander into ostentiatiousness in the 1970s. We already had a sillier rock-opera offering in 2009, with Benjy Ferree's overlooked Come Back to the Five and Dime, Bobby Dee, Bobby Dee. The Decemberists have sauntered close to the format, with looser conceptual song-cycles (The Crane Wife) and overextended single-song storytelling (The Tain). But this new one is one of those prelude and reprise and munchkin-orchestra summits, just the thing to make me nervous.

First of all, Harvard Courant, this isn't nearly as close to Jethro Tull as it is to a cross between The Who's Quadrophenia and Neil Young's Greendale. Tull, in both Passion Play and Thick As a Brick, developed operatic mixed-tempo song structures that were closer to some of Todd Rundgren's wilder efforts, usually with a single narrator telling an apocalyptic tale. Colin Meloy gives us assigned characters and parts, reaching to external vocalists Becky Stark and Shara Worden. The reliance on established characters works best when there are dueling tempos, as in 'The Wanting Comes in Waves,' when the structure sounds most like Quadrophenia.

But let's be honest. A Victorian-era tale of a love quadrangle involving woodland sprites and unwanted pregnancies doesn't grab me. When The Decemberists stay looser but brilliant, as in the aforementioned Crane Wife or Picaresque, it holds my interest better. Rest assured, even the apparently dumb moments of this work, like the female chorus of 'Hazards of Love Part 3,' will stick to your synapses even if you demand otherwise. But it revisits the old Tull/Who question: Does the world need more rock operas? (Nevertheless, it's bound to be in Top Ten for 2009.)


otin said...

You mentioned Tull, I think they were a brilliant band that is often overlooked in the annuls of classic rock. Alot of people don't realize that the album Aqualung deals with questioning God. It was nice to see someone mention Jethro Tull!

Dan Holden said...

I have to admit, one of my all-time favorite albums and stage productions was Jesus Christ Superstar. It made a great impression on my life, opened my eyes to the possibility that spirituality can exist outside of a Sunday service or Catechism. Since then I've become a fan of many rock operas and musicals, one day I hope to even write one. Personally, I think the format has existed for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Stories have always been told with music. We may even be hardwired to listen to them better that way, I don't know.

Loring Wirbel said...

And you know, I didn't want to be overly negative about the new Decemberists, since the repeating riffs and arias are really pretty neat. It's just that Colin likes to write melodramas that are sort-of Victorian era, and there comes a point where the story doesn't pull you in as much as some classic rock operas.

Loring Wirbel said...

Otin, I went through more copies of Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, Passion Play, War Child, than I can remember. Just played Thick as a Brick a few months ago, and my daughter went nuts over it!

wretch said...

I'd rather failed ambition than no ambition at all.

And I have to review that live SXSW podcast a few more times and really pay attention to the lyrics before I agree it was a failure -- as it is, I love the music. Even the use of the children's chorus, after all, it has been 30 years since Genesis did almost precisely the same thing in "Supper's Ready."

And while we're talking glorious failures, "The Lamb" deserves mention.

Loring Wirbel said...

You won't catch me calling "Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" a failure. It worked, sorta. Same with "Hazards." I keep hearing those little kids singing "oooohhhhh, the hazards of love" in my dreams.