The Decemberists’ “The Hazards of Love”: An Interpretation

The new Decemberists album was loosed last Tuesday, March 24, and has been met with enthusiasm almost universally.  I purchase only a few discs a year these days, preferring to spend the majority of my music dollars online.  This disc, I knew in advance, would be one of my purchases.

Upon purchase, I quickly came to understand that “The Hazards of Love” is a concept album in the truest sense: the songs are a single, uninterrupted blob – continuous sound from the haunting opening notes of “Prelude” to the final waves of “The Hazards of Love, Part 4.”  The challenge, as with any Decemberists offering, is to decipher the meaning of the often Victorian-style lyrics, and with “The Hazards of Love,” it’s proven to be a challenge.  However, within, find my interpretation of the Hazards of Love story.

Before I get into it, let me address a few complaints I have with this album:

  1. The CD liner smells like a camel pen
  2. The font in the liner booklet is far too small, doubling the challenge
  3. That’s it

I have no other complaints about this disc at all.  In fact, I’ve read only two complaints online, the first being that the talented Jenny Conlee is underused.  To those who have noted that, I urge you to relisten.  Her harpsichord, the Hammond, and her accordion can be heard throughout the album, and while she certainly takes a backseat on some songs, she provides depth to many of the themes that might otherwise deliver much less forcefully their message.

To those  who felt this album is too “heavy metal” and too far a departure from previous Decemberists material, I ask you to relisten paying greater attention to the story.  There is no unnecessary “metal” here.  There is only emotion to properly align to the lyrics.  The queen is accompanied by loud electric guitar.

So, let’s get on with it, shall we? Please read on, I’ll include my entire dissection of “The Hazards of Love.”

The Hazards of Love

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

MargaretThis song sets up the entire story.  We learn right away that a young lady – who we will later love as our heroine Margaret – goes horseriding out past the fields, far from home.  She crosses into the forest, as she often does, and comes upon a young deer at the edge of the forest, injured and limping, but despite the rapidly approaching dusk (“white and green and gray“), being a woman, the fairer, caring gender, she dismounts and tries to help the fawn.  Before she can assist, she feels a sharp shake of the ground, and the fawn shifts shape into a man.  She glances upon the man and falls immediately in love with him, and he with her.

They have sex, right there, in the forest, upon the forest floor, flowers and leaf beds (the “thistles“) providing the only padding.

Later, back in the grounds of the village,  the ladies relax and chit-chat, worry-free and without care, except one: our Margaret, who is otherwise distracted and thinking of her William and their marvelous encounters in the forest.

A Bower Song

Margaret’s sister, or perhaps just another maiden (Edit: or a nun), approaches and says to our heroine, “Don’t cry, Margaret! I know you’re pregnant, when are you going to give birth? And, by the way, which of the jerks around town is your baby daddy?” (I had some trouble with the line “when wilt thou trouble the water in the cistern“, but I’ve decided that troubling the water must mean draining it or reducing the level, which would mean an event that would require lots of cleaning, in short: the birth.)  [Update 2010-04-12: By far, the most popular debate in the comments is the relevance of the line “trouble the water in the cistern.”  It could mean the birth, it might reference Margaret’s next cycle, or it may even suggest a baptism.  Truth be told, it’s irrelevant.  All basically hint at the same thing: her peers suspect she’s pregnant. The specifics of the line are generally unimportant to the storyline.] As Margaret’s baby bump begins to show, rather than stay with the maidens and be exposed, she packs her things and heads back to the forest to find her William.

Won’t Want For Love

Our Margaret makes her way back to the forest in search of William, begging the forest as she goes to create a path to lead her to William and to alert him that she seeks him.  As she grows tired, she makes a bed in the forest, just as she and William shared a leafy bed in moons past.

Meanwhile, not so far away, William calls to Margaret, he pains to be with her.

The Hazards of Love  2 (Wager All)

WilliamWilliam finds Margaret and they declare their love for one another.  William tenderly confesses that he feels more for her than just a need for sex, rather, he loves her.  He lays her down in soft clovers and makes love to her beneath the sky.  In post-coital bliss, he tells he that he wishes that they could lay together all night, naked, until the morning birds sing.  We’ll later learn that he explains his predicament: his mother, the Queen of the Forest, she who rescued him from a clay cradle in the rough rivers, has cast a spell upon him.  He will live the remainder of his days as a fawn by day, a man only by night.  But he will risk everything for Margaret, he will face his mother, in due time…

The Queen’s Approach

Unbeknownst to our lovers, William’s adoptive mother, the Queen, approaches.  Our lovers, in great haste, part ways once again. Update: I’ve been rethinking this. It makes more sense that the Queen catches William and Margaret, and as a result, she forbids William from going out at night. That’s why they’ve spent nights together, but he must beg his mother to let him out in “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid”.

Isn’t It a Lovely Night?

I like to believe that our lovers sing this song while together, but it makes more sense to me that as Margaret soliloquizes from her perch in the forest, William sings from afar.  Margaret remains, perhaps, in the bed of flowers and clovers referenced earlier that she and William had shared.  She cherishes her baby-to-be, the child of William.  William, retreating to his forest dwelling, smiles giddily remembering how the breeze bent the leaves which tickled him as he made love to Margaret in the brush. Each agrees that in many ways, parting again is like dying a little death. Update: As pointed out in the comments below, “little death” is middle English slang for orgasm. Make of that what you will.

The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid

The Queen

Now the story gets interesting.  The Queen — William’s adoptive mother — finds William, and although she hasn’t caught him in the act,, she knows that he’s been out sleeping with a woman.   In anger, he tells her that he heard her coming, her approach was betrayed by the weight of her footsteps, much like black smoke covering a coffin precedes a funeral. He tells her that he wants this night to do as he pleases, for the need to be with her is strong, and although he can suppress it from time to time, sometimes, he cannot (hence, the wanting comes in waves).

She responds: “Hold on, I saved you from the river.  I cradled you.  I raised you.  I protected you.  You belong to me.  And now you want the night, the only time you’re a man, to spend with other women?   This is how you repay me for the years I spent as your mother?”

He bargains with her; he makes a foolish, pennywise offer: let me free for this one night, and I will return by dawn, and I will be yours forever.  Of course, we already know, he’s planning to run with Margaret.  After all, he’d “wager all.”

Th mother thinks this over and carefully responds: “Ok, you can have tonight – total freedom.  But here’s the catch, as you promised, come morning,  you belong to me for all future nights.  You just cashed in your one favor, m’boy, from here on out, we’re sqaure.”

An Interlude

Relax and enjoy friends, we’ve now the backstory, here’s where the adventure begins.

The Rake’s Song

The RakeEnter: The Rake.  The Rake is a vile man, married young.  The first 9 or so months of marriage was great, as he got lots of sex from his wife.  Of course, there was one unintended consequenece: she started having babies.  However, when delivering her fourth child, she and the baby died, leaving the rake with three kids and no chance to have the amount of sex he was craving. So he sets about to change his life: he poisons Charlotte by feeding her bad flowers.  He drowns poor Dawn in the bathtub.   And while his son Isiah struggles admirably, nonetheless, he kills him, and in response to the fighting, he burns the body.  Though we might think he’d be bothered by all of this, he assures us, it’s never really bothered him.

The Abduction of Margaret

The rake hides in the bushes, the very same bushes in which William and Margaret enjoyed their first enounter together.  As Margaret passes, the rake grabs her, binds her hands, throws her over his shoulder then across his horse, galloping away.  Then he comes to Annan Water, the uncrossable wild river, the very river from which the Queen once rescued baby William!

The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing

Here we learn the backstory to which I referred above: the Queen, she of the very fabric of the forest, found William in a clay cradle.  She took the poor baby and gave him the form of a fawn by day.

“So,” she says to the Rake, “since you have kidnapped Margaret, the only thing that has ever tempted my poor boy to defy me, I will fly you over the uncrossable Annan Water, so that William will be unable to chase you.  In exchange, you may keep young Margaret, to do with as you will, including raping and killing her, if you so desire.”

Annan Water

Meanwhile, William discovers that Margaret is nowhere to found, and upon tracking her trail, soon learns that she has been abducted.  He begins his quest to rescue her, but soon finds himself at the bank of Annan Water, the uncrossable river.  The river is far too wild and untamed to be crossed without a suitable boat of some sort,  a device which he neither has nor has time to make.  His horse would never make it across, and his mother has warned him many times that attempting to cross on horse would certainly end in his death.

But William is close, and can hear poor Margaret’s screams.  He is due to return to his mother for eternity and Margaret is captured by the Rake.  Desperate, he beckons the river: “Please, river, let me cross.  As I cannot grow wings and fly across, calm your waters and let me save my love.  If you do this, I will return, and if you desire, you can have my body then.  I will willingly submit myself to you.  Just let me pass to rescue my Margaret!”

Margaret In Captivity

The Rake, in one of the particularly creepy moments of the tale, paces about the bound Margaret in a small, abandoned forest castle, leans in, and tells her pointedly, “My swan, do not struggle, as you will only cause yourself rope burns or break your precious wrists and fingers.

But she calls for William.

Don’t bother getting your hopes up,” the Rake continues, “no one will hear you, and no one will find you.  At least not before I’ve raped and killed you.

But she calls for William!

The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)

The song begins with theme from “The Wanting Comes in Waves,” which we know, by now, is William’s theme.  William comes for his Margaret! But is he in time?

But wait! What is that sound? It’s the ghost of Charlotte, come to warn her father that his children have returned, she rises. Enter Dawn, chastising papa for keeping the water running, but fear not – she breathes again.  And Isiah,  the struggling son, has returned as well.  In fact, the Rake is driven mad by the return of his vengeful children.

The children have saved Margaret temporarily, but for long enough?

The Wanting Comes in Waves (Reprise)

The lack of lyrics here leave much of the story up to us, so here is how I see it: as the Rake is struggling with the ghosts of his late children, William triumphantly bursts into the fortress, killing the Rake, and saving his Margaret!  He pulls loose her binds and they leave the body of the Rake behind to be forgotten.

The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)

No Decemberists adventure is complete without a tragic ending.  This one bothers me more than most.  I wish it didn’t end this way, but I think it’s clear what happens.

William and Margaret are now stuck on the far side of Annan Water.  They attempt to cross, but the waters, obeying William’s one-time wish, attempt to claim his body, as he promised.  He cannot escape Annan Water like he did his mother.  So, as he and Margaret struggle to stay above water, William asks Margaret to marry him, with only the waves to witness their matrimony.

William’s debt to the water exists, of course, only because he decided to rescue Margaret and Margaret knows this. What is left for our star-crossed lovers? William can only be a man during the night, which is already promised to his mother, who will stop at nothing to prevent Margaret and William from being together. Margaret cannot return home with child. William cannot stay in the forest, as he has crossed his mother, and she has sent the Rake after Margaret. It looks like there will be no happy ending for our hero and heroine.

In their last moments, they swear eternal loyalty to one another and share a final and touching kiss as the air rushes from their lungs and, then, gently and willingly, they submit to the rough waters of Annan.  And with that, our poor lovers break the surface and rest, entwined, at peace, undisturbed, in Annan Water, for eternity.


What we don’t know is whether or not the child has survived.  It would be nice to think that Margaret has actually delivered the baby and that the poor child survives.  It’s funny to think that somehow, William himself was abandoned in the forest.  However, it seems unlikely that Margaret would have been wandering for the Rake to seize her without her baby.  I fear the child has gone to the eternal rest with his parents.

Either way, it’s sad to think that William and Margaret were unable to escape and live happily ever after.  I’ve listened to the album several times through, and I fear I cannot find any way to bend the story such that they don’t die.  Unfortunately, this is one section of the lyrics that is relatively straightforward.


A note on geography: the first Hazards of Love makes reference to Offa’s Wall. Offa’s Dyke is, according to Wikipedia, “is a massive linear earthwork, roughly following some of the current border between England and Wales.” That, it would seem, puts us in the British isles. The Rake’s fourth child was named “Myfanwy,” which is an Welsh name, which seems to set us firmly in Welch territory. The only hesitation I have on this is that the taiga, referenced a few times, doesn’t extend to Wales.


There is a town called Annan Water in Scotland, not far from Glasgow, which I found by simply Googling Annan Water. It doesn’t appear there is taiga in Scotland, although there are apparently “taiga bean geese” which are nearly extinction. Given that Annan Water is in Scotland, but Offa’s Dyke in Wales, I think it’s safe to give Meloy and crew some poetic license and simply conclude that it’s either Wales, England, or Scotland. I’m even willing to grant that the “taiga” we’re referring to is only cold forest, but that, for literary amusement, we’re calling it taiga. I may be wrong here, but I don’t think it’s necessary to plot the location with GPS precision.

The incredible story of this album is puntuated by the recurring themes of the music and the associated voices.  I am absolutely haunted by Queen, voiced by the incredibly vocally gifted Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond.  Her last note of “Repaid” is one of the most amazing moments of the story.  She conveys the Queen’s seriousness in one dramatic note.

The tragic story of The Hazards of Love is one that is best understood upon multiple listenings.  Take the time to pass over it more than once before passing judgement, as a complete package, it’s absolutely enchanting.

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