Decemberists take a musical risk with 'folk opera'

After Colin Meloy and his Oregon band, the Decemberists, completed the first performance of "The Hazards of Love," their new 17-song "folk opera," Meloy's encore of "I Was Meant for the Stage" had particular resonance.

Meloy first started playing the song years ago in dive bars, where its grandiose sense of predestined stardom was plainly ironic.

But after playing the ambitious, multi-character concept album for a roaring crowd of 2,000 at the South By Southwest music conference — and many more listening live on NPR's broadcast — Meloy's theatrical talent was self-evident.

"I've had the most interesting relationship with that song," Meloy said the following day. "Now I almost feel like I am embodying that person in a weird way. I do feel like this is what I have to do. Whether I like it or not, I'm stuck with it."

As the frontman and songwriter of the Decemberists, the 34-year-old Meloy has pushed his Portland band to increasingly strange heights.

On Tuesday, they released "The Hazards of Love," an opera with folk, rock and heavy metal inflections. The narrative is a bit abstract, but it's centered on, as Meloy says, "folk motifs." More simply, it's the story of two young lovers, William and Margaret.

The part of Margaret is sung by Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond. Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond sings the darker part of the Queen. Both are joining the Decemberists on their spring tour, on which "The Hazards of Love" will be performed in full.

The album began as a project for a staged musical. Meloy was approached by "Spring Awakening" director Michael Mayer and producer Tom Hulce. A longtime musical fan (he grew up doing community theater and performed theater in college), Meloy was eager for the challenge.

When he finished it, all agreed "Hazards of Love" was too esoteric to stage. But Meloy counts it as his first go-around and plans to try again. He's now writing a musical based on a 1917 mine disaster in Butte, Mont., in which 164 people were killed.

Meloy, whose sister is the novelist Maile Meloy, was born in Helena, Mont. He, too, had planned to be a writer after studying creative writing at the University of Montana. After graduating, he moved to Portland (where he now lives with his wife and family) and formed the Decemberists, and his music career began to take off.

When the Decemberists signed a record deal with the indie label Kill Rock Stars in 2003 for their first widely released album ("Her Majesty the Decemberists"), it came with a sacrifice.

"I realized I was making a commitment by doing that and that I was not going to be going back to school to get my MFA," said Meloy. "If I was going to really commit myself to this, then this is my path. And I think ('I Was Meant for the Stage') kind of grew from that feeling."

On the band's first three albums (the others were "Castaways and Cutouts" and 2005's "Picaresque"), the Decemberists quickly stood out from the indie pack. In wry, ironic narratives about chimney sweeps and prostitutes, Meloy's music was labeled "highly literate" and "Victorian-obsessed."

Meloy says he learned his boldness from starting out in a "complete vacuum of an audience." Faced with disinterested bar crowds, he decided to "see how far my fancies can fling me."

To his surprise, people responded.

"It was odd because in some ways, I feel like I was kind of trying to push people away — just like, 'Well if you're not going to listen, I'm going to write songs about chimney sweeps and legionnaires,'" he said.

In recent years, those flights of fancy have grown more dynamic. Their major label debut for Capitol Records, 2007's acclaimed "The Crane Wife," was their most prog-rock effort to date. "The Hazards of Love" pushes even further, with heavy metal riffs interrupting folk ballads.

Meloy might seem a natural fit to the acoustic guitar-totting singer-songwriter aesthetic, but he rebels against it.

"I just have too many weird, wild fancies as far as music is concerned to always write songs like that," said Meloy. "Some of the stuff is a reaction against the expectations of being a singer-songwriter — that you can't do certain things."

"The Hazards of Love" is rife with references. Its title comes from an Anne Briggs EP. Meloy remains obsessed with British folk, particularly that of the '70s — acts like Nick Jones, Shirley Collins, Sandy Deny and Fairport Convention. He calls old folk music his "reset button."

His musical inspirations date from the same period: "Godspell," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and the original London recording of "Evita."

All this might make the album sound self-serious but Meloy insists, "It's not really supposed to be that serious." (The quintet's sense of humor was most evident during its mock feud with Stephen Colbert.)

"We've certainly had a lot of detractors and I can TOTALLY understand why," said Meloy, laughing. "It's just built for detraction. But it's the stuff I really like."

Meloy doesn't hide that he wrestles with the obligations of his job, saying he feels both "profoundly lucky to be doing it, but I also desperately, desperately hate it."

So Meloy sings "I Was Meant for the Stage" — like so many songs — with a mix of irony, sincerity and regret.

"I love the performance but I hate the performance," said Meloy. "I have a very complex relationship with my job."

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