The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid, by the Decemberists

Concept albums were a wonderful concept (pun is fun) starting in the late 60s and through progressive rock’s golden age in the early 70s. Youth of the time used to wait in anticipation of their favorite bands’ next release, rush to record stores to fork their meager allowance in exchange of vinyl, open the gatefold and gaze in awe at the expansive artwork, place the needle on the outside groove and slip into a sonic world created for them by able musicians who tired weeks and months on end to produce the equivalent of modern-age symphonies. The LP format, each side storing about 20 minutes of consecutive music, did not scare then-highschoolers. They would place themselves in front of their hi-fi system, darken the room, close their eyes, talk very little and just listen and let their mind go places.
With today’s portable music players, buying habits influenced by one-click purchasing of individual songs, music streaming services throwing random songs at you, an over-used shuffle function, attention spans measured in seconds and very few credible DJs who can act as music curators, today’s youth are not conditioned to appreciate a concept album.

There are progressive bands around attempting to produce albums with long narratives, but I find many of them unsatisfying either because the story is weak, the music too samey to other artists and in general the glue that binds the tracks to a long and cohesive piece of music lacks gravitas. This is why the Decemberists’ 2009 album The Hazard of Love is so unique. There is a dark story, there are good musical motifs that repeat throughout the album, the individual songs are linked to each other well with instrumental segues, and the melting pot of folk tales, Americana and Metal works great. Oh, and lest we forgot the musicians and singers, all dishing out epic instrumental and vocal performances.


The story is a fantasy amalgam involving a pair of lovers, Margaret and William, his mother queen who wants her son to herself, a Rake who wants to violate Margaret, various acts of murder, magic and bravery, all consummating in a mutual drowning of the lovers. A true medieval tragedy.
Colin Meloy wrote this plot in the spring of 2008 while in the south of France. At the time he was immersed in the British folk revival of the 60s and listening to Shirley Collins, The Pentangle, Anne Briggs, Sandy Denny, Maddy Prior and June Tabor. Not a bad crop to be associated with musically. The album name was borrowed from a 4-song EP released by Anne Briggs in 1964. His plan was to create a musical but as the plot and music developed, he realized he had a rock opera on his hand. Or better yet, a folk opera.

ann-briggs-the-hazards-of-loveColin Meloy comes from a literary family and his interest in literature sprinkles throughout The Decemberists’ output. Both his aunt Ellen and sister Maile are writers, and Colin is the author of the children’s book fantasy series Wildwood, including illustrations by his wife Carson Ellis who also creates the artwork for the Decemberists’ albums. The band is named after an unfinished novel by Tolstoy, who was planning to continue chronicling Russia’s early 19th century history by writing a sequel to War and Peace. The Decemberists is the name of a liberal movement who in December 1925 plotted a failed uprising against the newly appointed Tsar Nicholas. The book was never written but the name caught Meloy’s imagination.

the-decemberists-2Creating a good concept album is not easy, as you have to keep shifting your focus from the big picture to specific musical pieces and back. Meloy on that process: “There was the question of whether all the songs would go together. Creating the transitions was really hard, and the little musical motifs that pop up throughout. So for the first month or so we were working on it, the entire thing was just cut up in these little bits. And some were as long as 15 seconds. And so it got really, really confusing. On top of that, none of the songs have catchy choruses or anything, so there was no title. Something as basic as creating a working title was really challenging, and the titles were always weird and amorphous. Even if it was a lyric from a song, it was hard to figure out which song we were referring to, so that was a little confusing.”

the-decemberists-the-hazards-of-loveCreating the artwork for The Hazards of Love was also a laborious project. Carson Ellis discussed the process in an interview for Paste Magazine: “I went online and looked at tons of old, like, carte de visite and cabinet cards, old photo portraiture, and then just looked until I found ones that reminded me of the characters, and then changed them a little. This guy was wearing a straw hat—this was the rake—he had this straw hat that was, actually, at a rakish angle, and it was so kind of hokey, a little too much, that I took it out—it was just too campy Victorian. So I took the hat out. And he was standing but I put him in the chair [the rake’s portrait, pictured below]. And actually these are photos that I drew from that I found on the Internet. I printed them out and made mirror images of them and then drew from those.”


the-decemberists-the-hazards-of-love-booklet-2The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid is one of the highlights of the album, at the point in the story where William and his mother queen strike a deal in which she allows him one last night with Margaret before she reclaims him forever. The song bounces between baroque folk (William’s narrative) and stoner metal (the queen). The harpsichord opening by Jenny Conlee puts you immediately in the dark ages and the show is stolen by Shara Nova as the queen. Her operatic voice during the queen’s parts works wonders here.

Here is the band with guests Shara Nova and Becky Stark performing the song live in 2009:

And the studio version with visuals from “Here Come The Waves: The Hazards of Love Visualized”, an animated interpretation of the album:

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like these:

Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair, by Nina Simone

John Barleycorn, by Traffic

Mother I can hear your footfall now
soft disturbance in the dead fall how
it precedes you like a black smoke oh
still the wanting comes in waves

You delivered me from danger then
pulled my cradle from the reedy glen
swore to save me from the world of men
still the wanting comes in waves
and the wanting comes in waves
and I want this night
and I want this night, ah, oh

The Queen:
How I made you, I wrought you, I pulled you
from ore I labored you
from cancer I cradled you
And now, this is how I am repaid
This is how I am repaid

Remember when I found you
the miseries that hounded you
and I gave you motion, anointed you with lotions
and now, this is how I am repaid
This is how I am repaid

Mother hear this proposition right
grant me freedom to enjoy this night
and I’ll return to you at break of light
For the wanting comes in waves, in waves, in waves
Still the wanting comes in waves
Still the wanting comes in waves
Still the wanting comes in waves
And you owe me life
And you owe me life, ah, oh

The Queen:
And if I grant you this favor, to hand you
your life for the evening I will retake by morning
and so consider it your debt repaid
Consider it your debt repaid, repaid, repaid

Categories: Song

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1 reply »

  1. Thank you! Great article. Sometimes I think I am over thinking it, but my mind’s own rabbit hole shows me that I have merely scratched the surface.

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