Tell Me a Story
Rocking the Opera With The Decemberists and Mastodon

Well. As I mentioned last week, I participated in my first-ever podcast recently, as a guest of Derek Wright, the man behind Liner Notes Magazine.

The podcast is online now at Derek’s site. I’m listening to it right now, and I think it turned out pretty well. We talked about albums by Superdrag, Quiet Company, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Wavves (winners of a WTF Award last week), Prodigy, and one of this week’s contestants, the Decemberists.

It was a fun couple of hours, and I think that comes through, despite a few rough spots on my end. You should be listening to Derek’s bi-weekly dissection of new music anyway, but if you have a particularly burning desire to hear the author of this column rambling incoherently in search of a point while a seasoned professional tries valiantly to keep him on track, then check out the March 25 podcast. Thanks to Derek for having me on. I hope we do it again.

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Here’s the thing about being an obsessive music fan – I’m really only limited by my budget.

There’s a lot of music vying for my attention, and me being me, I want all of it. The problem is, unless you’re one of those people who just takes what you want, music costs money, and I can only buy so much so often. Still, a disturbing amount of my twice-monthly paycheck goes to new music (and old music sometimes too, in new packages), and I’m constantly trying to prioritize my endless wish list.

There are a couple of sure-fire ways to get me to buy your record, though. One of them, oddly enough, is to put out a double album – you’d think, since they’re more expensive than singles, that twin sets would move to the bottom of my list, but I respond strongly to ambition, to career-defining, go-for-broke statements. Triple albums are even more fascinating. I don’t know why, but I’m a sucker for them.

Here’s the best way to get me on board, though: tell me a story.

As much as I love collections of songs, I love full-album statements more. The idea of telling stories through song is centuries old, but it never gets less thrilling for me. Whether you call them rock operas or concept albums or sonic theater or whatever, I can’t get enough of them. Start with an overture, give me a few reprises, set up musical themes that move the story forward when they reappear – basically, give me the sense that you’re using the album format to its fullest to say something meaningful to you, something allegorical and theatrical, something that takes an hour or two to unfold, and you’ve got me.

I’ve always liked concept records, from the first ones I heard – The Wall, Operation: Mindcrime, Tommy – but my affection for them has only intensified as they’ve become endangered. We live in the age of iTunes, where the album is almost passé, and the consumer’s vision of music is much more important than the artist’s. We’re all about the quick hit these days, the two-second idea, the catchphrase. No one has time and energy for an hour-long suite anymore. Music should entertain, or reinforce your own coolness. It shouldn’t challenge or demand more of you.

Conventional wisdom says the album is dying, and the album-length statement is dying even faster. Which is why I’m so surprised and gratified to have two superb concept albums to dig into this week – against all odds, people are still making these things, pushing the limits of their own capabilities to tell sprawling, ambitious stories. And telling them very well.

Truth be told, Colin Meloy, the visionary behind the Decemberists, has always been a storyteller. Even the earliest Decemberists records have been seeped in that centuries-old, traveling minstrel feeling, as if Meloy had popped into the recording studio after riding around the countryside on his tired old horse and singing his tales for room and board. (In a sense, that’s just what a touring band does anyway.) It should be no surprise that he’s taken that sweet major label money and just continued to tell stories.

But in nearly every way, the Decemberists’ fifth album, The Hazards of Love, is a shocker. Get this: it’s a 17-track rock opera on which every song segues, wrapping together into a single hour-long piece. It tells a tale full of illicit romance, shapeshifters, jealous queens with Oedipal issues, slaughtered children coming back from the grave, vengeance and death. In addition to Meloy, who plays three parts himself, it includes two prominent female singers taking on lead roles, and at one key point, a trio of creepy kid singers too. It is utterly, utterly mad, and yet, it’s absolutely amazing.

Start at the beginning. The Hazards of Love tells the story of Margaret, who wanders into the forest one day and finds a wounded faun. She helps him, and the faun magically transforms into a man, named William. The two fall in love, meeting secretly, and when Margaret realizes she’s pregnant, she goes into the woods to find William. But their tender reunion is interrupted by William’s adoptive mother, an angry queen who will not accept William’s new love. She works with a villainous knave to arrange Margaret’s abduction, much to William’s anguish. And then things get weird.

Can you imagine how the executives at Capitol Records reacted to this idea? They must have been beside themselves when they heard the actual record – this thing rarely sounds like the Decemberists. For one thing, it rocks, hard. It’s the loudest thing they’ve ever done, full of meaty, bluesy, explosive guitars. It’s just this side of metal in places. Combine that with the fact that almost none of these 17 songs can stand on their own musically, let alone lyrically. The tracks are parts of a whole, in every way.

Initially, that was a stumbling block for me. One by one, these are the weakest songs Colin Meloy has ever written, devoid of hooks and immediate appeal. But that’s not the point. This album is all about narrative force. It establishes key musical themes early on, and pays them off in the dark and emotional final third. “A Bower Scene,” which depicts Margaret discovering her pregnancy, is set to the same music as “The Abduction of Margaret” later on, and that same piece sets up the Queen’s whiplash-inducing blues-guitar theme, taken to its fullest extreme on “The Queen’s Rebuke.” And there are four songs entitled “The Hazards of Love,” and each uses similar melodies to set very different scenes.

The one real knockout moment, melodically speaking, is the chorus of “The Wanting Comes in Waves,” with its glorious backing vocal and yearning lyrics. And like the true craftsman he is, Meloy brings that chorus back at record’s end, offering an entirely different meaning – I shuddered the first time I heard it. The record ends with the fourth of its title tracks, subtitled “The Drowned” – you can see where this is headed, I think. The song is beautiful, perhaps the only stand-alone single here, Meloy doing his best David Gilmour over a sweet country-folk foundation, and on first listen, you might almost miss how sad and tragic it is.

Perhaps Meloy’s smartest move here was his decision to share the stage, inviting other singers to play the parts of Margaret and the Queen. Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark does a fine job with the former – her entrance on “Won’t Want for Love” is unexpected, but exactly right, and her plaintive “Oh, my one true love” near album’s end will stay with you. But it is Shara Worden, of My Brightest Diamond, who steals the show. She adds just the right over-the-top touch to the wicked Queen, and she can belt out the bluesy licks with the best of them. Her showcase is “Repaid,” which is mixed in with “The Wanting Comes in Waves,” and she’s jaw-droppingly awesome.

In one sense, Hazards is Colin Meloy opening up and taking things democratic – he shares his lead vocals, and he gives his band a much stronger role, especially multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk. Jenny Conlee’s cooler-than-cool organ playing adds a real ‘70s prog-rock feel to things, and the entire band steps up in ways they never have before. But in another way, this is the full flowering of Meloy’s singular vision – I don’t know of another songwriter who would even attempt something like this, something steeped in English folk and Jethro Tull and Broadway and dark fairy tales, all at once.

Here’s the thing. It takes tremendous faith in yourself and your audience to create and release something like this – it’s an hour-long song, essentially, and it only works if you listen to all of it, multiple times. It’s audacious, ambitious, and almost completely successful. It is also literate, challenging, difficult, and intense. I wish these were qualities embraced by the mainstream, but they’re not. Whether this daring experiment goes down in flames and takes their major-label contract with it, Meloy and his band have done themselves and their story proud here. For those of us who adore this kind of thing, The Hazards of Love is a brilliant, moving triumph, and proof that the concept album is not dead yet.

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The Hazards of Love is an album that cannot survive without its concept. That’s not the case with the new Mastodon album, Crack the Skye, but it’s no less of a superb record in its own right.

Mastodon is one of the most acclaimed metal bands playing right now, and it’s partially because they decided early on not to be constrained by their genre. They started out like most metal bands, playing as hard and as fast as they could, but over time, they’ve developed subtlety – they’ve stayed heavy, but their work has gotten prettier, more textured. Some old-school metal fans will balk at Crack the Skye, Mastodon’s most melodic album yet, but to me, it’s their high point.

Like the Decemberists, Mastodon is no stranger to musical storytelling – this is the band, after all, that wrote an entire album based on Moby Dick. That record, 2004’s Leviathan, truly put them in the vanguard of this new metal brigade, and 2006’s astonishing Blood Mountain (no concept required, alas) only cemented their place. For album number four, they’ve come up with an absolutely bonkers framework to hang their seven new songs on. Here, I’ll let drummer Brann Dailor explain it:

“There is a paraplegic and the only way that he can go anywhere is if he astral travels. He goes out of his body, into outer space and a bit like Icarus, he goes too close to the sun, burning off the golden umbilical cord that is attached to his solar plexus. So he is in outer space and he is lost, he gets sucked into a wormhole, he ends up in the spirit realm and he talks to spirits telling them that he is not really dead. So they send him to the Russian cult, they use him in a divination and they find out his problem.

“They decide they are going to help him. They put his soul inside Rasputin’s body. Rasputin goes to usurp the czar and he is murdered. The two souls fly out of Rasputin’s body through the crack in the sky and Rasputin is the wise man that is trying to lead the child home to his body because his parents have discovered him by now and think that he is dead. Rasputin needs to get him back into his body before it’s too late. But they end up running into the Devil along the way and the Devil tries to steal their souls and bring them down…there are some obstacles along the way.”

Did you get all that? If not, don’t worry about it – Crack the Skye is immensely enjoyable without knowing any of the plot. If you need to, you can just pass off lines like “The wormhole is empty, the center of Khlysty surrounds me, the fire is dancing in a silvery sheet of breath” as fantasy-metal nonsense. And honestly, I’m not sure it isn’t. I know the story Crack the Skye purports to tell, but the lyrics are choppy and vague, the songs disconnected – the centerpiece, “The Czar,” seems only tangentially related to the rest, unless you know already how it’s supposed to connect. As a story, it fails.

But you know what? This is going to sound hypocritical, given the praise I lavished on Colin Meloy’s theatrical ambitions, but I don’t really care about the story Mastodon is trying to tell. This album is simply awesome, with or without it. It’s made up of five short songs and two epics, and every song is richly drawn and captivating. Skye was produced by Brendan O’Brien, and he’s guided the band into making one of the most sonically detailed metal albums I’ve ever heard. It may be the genre’s first headphone album.

Never fear, though – even amidst all the undeniably pretty melodies, synth textures and banjo cameos, Mastodon never lets you forget they’re a metal band. I mentioned “The Czar” before, and it’s a perfect example – over its 11 minutes, it moves from ethereal beauty to shredding madness and back. It’s simply epic, a great piece of music. That’s not to slight the shorter pieces, which cram just as much melody and power into five minutes – “Divinations” is particularly excellent.

But the real gem of the album is the final track, “The Last Baron.” It is a 13-minute crescendo, beginning with chiming, bell-like guitars and growing, building, unfolding like origami into an absolutely crushing monster. When you hit the full explosion around the 8:30 mark, Mastodon just becomes unstoppable. And yet, with all the pyrotechnic force on display, the sonic diversity remains – there are harmonies, there is orchestration, there are little flourishes and big moments. It’s an absolutely spellbinding listen.

Crack the Skye may not be a rock opera in the truest sense, and the band has certainly not emphasized the overarching story when talking about it. But it works as a whole piece anyway, each track building off the last on the way to “The Last Baron.” Mastodon has once again claimed their place atop the new metal heap, and if they can keep moving forward the way they have on Skye, they’re likely to be there for a long time.

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And now, it’s time for the First Quarter Report.

If you’re new to this column, here’s what the quarterly reports are all about. Like every other music critic in the world, I keep a running top 10 list throughout the year, and unveil it in late December. But I decided a couple of years ago to give you a glimpse of how that list grows and changes, as new records come out and replace older ones. Every three months, I will give you a look at my running list, frozen in time – essentially, if I had to put my top 10 list out now, here’s what it would look like:

10. Fiction Family.
9. Kid, You’ll Move Mountains, Loomings.
8. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone.
7. Steven Wilson, Insurgentes.
6. Franz Ferdinand, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand.
5. Loney, Dear, Dear John.
4. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion.
3. Duncan Sheik, Whisper House.
2. Quiet Company, Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon.
1. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love.

That’s right, I like the Decemberists album enough to put it atop my list, for now. I might tire of it in a few weeks, or a few months, but right now, I’m into it like nothing else I’ve bought this year. (Except maybe for Roger Manning’s Catnip Dynamite, but since that came out last year in Japan, it’s ineligible.) If forced at gunpoint to set the list in stone right now, The Hazards of Love would be the best album of 2009. But of course, there’s nine months left. Stick around and find out what happens next.

In seven days, some Prince, some Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and something else, probably.

See you in line Tuesday morning.