The Hazards of Love is built on what we might think of as a conventional conceptual frame (but not a concept album), with a beginning, middle and end to its structural arc. Yet it’s in how loosely the characterization follows this arc that the album differs from others of its kind.
The private history of our romantic relationships is an epic drama in at least our own minds, and the album makes this appeal to our imaginations with broad descriptive strokes: Margaret is the object of our unnamed narrator’s thwarted affection, while the Queen plots to keep the lovers apart, and is somehow in league with the Rake, whose murderous rage ends in patricide (not necessarily against the lovers). Conventional stuff, but with lyrics such as “The prettiest whistles will wrestle the thistles undone” and “Here I am, softer than a shower, to garland you with flowers.”
This is where the album makes a departure. Adding poetry to the musical mix can make for heady results when in the hands of a master like Van Morrison, but unfortunately The Decemberists’ literary attempt to create meaning places the music itself in a secondary, supporting role.