In the Studio: The Decemberists Return With Fairy-Tale Album

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Everyone's going to call it a rock opera," says the Decemberists' frontman, Colin Meloy. "I've just got to come around to that." Meloy is in the midst of mixing the band's fifth album, Hazards of Love, at an Oregon City studio. It's very different from the Decemberists' 2006 major-label debut, The Crane Wife: Producer Tucker Martine is piecing together 16 or so segments into a continuous, hour-long narrative suite that riffs on folk-song archetypes. It's a twisty, fantastical story about a woman named Margaret who is ravaged by a shape-shifting animal; her lover, William, who is desperate for the two of them to be reunited; a forest queen; and a villainous rake. "There's a story there, but it's really painted with broad strokes," says Meloy.

At first, Hazards of Love was going to be an actual musical, staged by director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening). The story that Meloy came up with, however, was "practically unstageable," the frontman says. (The pair are still hoping to work together, perhaps on something about a 1917 labor dispute in Montana.)

Musically, Hazards of Love is the Decemberists' full-on classic-rock move, with Meloy and guitarist Chris Funk's pretty Zep-style fingerpicking punctuated by crushing stoner-metal lurches. They're joined by guest vocalists including Lavender Diamond's Becky Stark, who sings the knockout "Margaret in the Taiga," and My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden. "I wanted to have different voices singing different songs, so it would be like a fake musical," Meloy explains. On the Decemberists' spring tour, the band will be playing the entire album straight through.

In the meantime, the quintet are touring this fall behind a new series of singles, most notably "Valerie Plame," an ode to the outed CIA operative. "When she was in the news," Meloy says, "I'd hear her name all the time on the radio — the cadence was perfect for a pop song."

[From Issue 1066 — November 27, 2008]

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