When Rock Stars Read Edmund Spenser

The eight most pretentious lyrics from the new Decemberists album.

The Decemberists 

The other day, I finally listened to the new Decemberists album, The Hazards of Love, having let the thing sit in my CD pile for as long as possible—until it began to stink up the apartment like a moldering camembert. I don’t much care for the Decemberists, the Portland, Ore., quintet led by Colin Meloy. Meloy is a singer-songwriter and self-styled littérateur who loves neo-prog-rock song suites, antique poesy, and his own beautiful mind, not in that order. What began on the 2002 debut Castaways and Cutouts as vaguely entertaining days-of-yore pop—catchy folk-pop songs about prostitutes and pirates and legionnaires —has become an unbearable exercise in indie high-quirkiness, with each new release deepening the impression that Meloy thinks he’s Edmund Spenser or, at least, the only rock singer smart enough to keep a copy of The Faerie Queene on his bedside plinth.


The previous Decemberists CD, the critically lionized concept album The Crane Wife (2006), mashed up Japanese folklore and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, giving Meloy the opportunity to rhyme Sycorax with parallax. The Hazards of Love is a medieval romance about a maiden who is impregnated when a wounded fawn she encounters in an enchanted wood shape-shifts into a demon-lover. The tale also features a forest witch, a rake, a choir of undead children, allusions to Welsh mythology, and lyrics like “what irascible blackguard/ Is the father.”*

There’s nothing wrong with such a record per se—I have nothing against musicians dabbling in wacky archaism. There is a noble pop tradition of medievalist gobbledygook: I love me some “Battle of Evermore” and adore Joanna Newsom’s Ys, whose flights of pastoral poetry are at least as florid and pretentious as Meloy’s. But Led Zeppelin and Joanna Newsom have the courage of their convictions—they’re fully emotionally invested in their druids and dream worlds; they mean what they’re singing about; they draw you into their fairy tales. Meloy is a gifted composer and arranger; The Hazards of Love expertly toggles between chiming folk and hard-rock crescendos. But the whimsy is suffocating, and the reams of verse seem designed mostly to demonstrate book-learning and to flatter an audience of current and former English majors—listeners who like their pop songs “literate.” As for Meloy’s obsession with Edward Gorey-esque black comedy, a trend that continues on the new album’s “The Rake’s Song“: Stick with Weill or Sondheim. Or Tom Waits or Stephin Merritt. Or Count von Count.


To save undergraduates hours in the library stacks puzzling through the runes of The Hazards of Love, I herewith (to use a Meloy-ism) offer some Cliff’s Notes: an annotated guide to the album’s key passages.


1. From “Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)

Father, I’m not feeling well, the flowers me you fed
Tasted spoiled for suddenly I find that I am dead

I you assure that object-verb inversion is poetic. Verily.

2. From “Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)

Fifteen lithesome maidens lay
Along in their bower
Fourteen occupations pay
To pass the idle hour

I count three vocabulary words in the passage, all of which may appear on Monday’s quiz. Lithesome: pliant, supple, easily flexed. Bower: a lady’s boudoir in a medieval castle. Occupation: job, vocation; e.g., poetaster.


3. From “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing

Made of bones of the branches
The boughs and the brow-beating light

Extra credit for alliteration! ++!

4. From “The Abduction of Margaret

All a’gallop with Margaret slung rude ‘cross withers
Having clamped her innocent fingers in fetters
This villain must calculate crossing the wild river!


The echo in these lines of Hamlet’s tart rejoinder to Claudius—”Let the galled jade winch, our withers are unwrung” (Hamlet III.2.220)—is surely deliberate. One hopes that indie rock go-to-girl Natalie Portman will appear in the video clip for this song, slung ‘cross withers as rude as possible.

5. From “Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)

So tell me now, O tell me this: a river’s son, a forest’s daughter
A willow wand, a will-o-wisp, our ghosts will wander all of the water


In the margin of a draft manuscript I have in my possession, the following variant appears, in Meloy’s tremulous handwriting:

O, woe! Whence the Whip-poor-will, the waxwing, the wombat, the werewolf?

6. From “Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)


She, being full of charity,
A credit to her sex
Sought to right the fawn’s hind legs
When here her plans were vexxed
The taiga shifted strange *
The beast began to change

But was she really a credit to her sex? Wouldn’t a more charitable girl have hastened back to the village to fetch a medick, who might have plied the pitiable creature with a syrup of ipecac or performed a healing trepanation? This improvised medical intervention was ill-advised—little wonder the maiden was ravished by a he-beast.


7. From “Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)

And we’ll lie ‘til the Corn Crake crows
Bereft of the weight of our summer clothes

Twenty-first-century English translation:

I’m-a freak you till
Da break-a dawn.

8. From “Won’t Want For Love (Margaret in the Taiga)

Mistlethrush, Mistlethrush
Lay me down in the underbrush
My naked feet grow weary with the dusk

Hold on, the maiden has been bushwhacking all day, shoeless? And only now, at nightfall, are her feet starting to hurt? The poet needs to do some field research. Also, a flat, clear space on the forest floor—bereft, as it were, of shrubbery—is preferable spot for a night’s sleep. Underbrush, like bad poetry, sucks.

Correction, April 21, 2009: The article originally misquoted two lyrics from the new Decemberists album. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)