You know, I enjoy the Decemberists’ album “The Hazards of Love.” Truly I do. But its ending is fucking awful. I’d always been somewhat bothered by it, but since I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Iron Maiden’s “Still Life,” it’s made me genuinely angry.
For those of you not in the know as to the plotlines we’re dealing with here…
“Still Life” is a song about a man who is driven slowly insane by ghosts he sees in his swimming pool. Eventually he snaps and drowns himself and one other person (it’s never specified who, though most people assume it’s a lover of some kind) in the swimming pool so they can be with the ghosts.
“The Hazards of Love” is a rock opera/concept album. In it, a woman named Margaret falls in love with a boreal forest spirit (whose name is apparently William, though this isn’t specified anywhere in the songs). Eventually she becomes pregnant with his child, and when this can no longer be concealed, she runs away into the woods. Unfortunately for her, William’s adoptive mother, another forest spirit, doesn’t approve of their being together, and so she conspires with an evil rake to have her kidnapped and taken away to be abused in all and sundry ways. In order to rescue her, William must cross a river, and he gets safe passage by promising that if he ever comes back, he will drown in the river. In the end, he and Margaret decide to drown themselves in the river together to be free from the “hazards of love,” as it were.
My issue with the ending to “The Hazards of Love” is that it seems as though the main characters’ deaths are largely pointless and seem to be designed mostly to make the audience sad (and if there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s being manipulated in that way). There are plot-based reasons for them to die (since William’s mother is still not okay with Margaret being with him), but the issue is that the story never seriously brings up the possibility of circumventing any of those obstacles to their being together, other than death. The moment one examines exactly how and why they die, you can’t help but ask awkward questions: Why did William need to offer up his life to guarantee safe passage? How did he think Margaret would receive this news? Did he make any attempt at all to run away from his fate, or did he immediately come to the conclusion that he and she would need to sacrifice themselves in the name of love? What makes it all the worse is that the evil rake isn’t even defeated by William—it’s his own murdered children that ultimately do him in. To be fair, there was no way William could have known about that at the time, but this isn’t something that’s ever addressed—we don’t get a song where William realizes the irony of it all. As a result, it really seems like the album ends on a downer for the sole purpose of ending on a downer.
Worse, we never actually get Margaret’s take on this. The album never once says whether or not she’s okay with dying with William. The actual lyrics of the album’s closing song (“So let’s be married here today, these rushing waves to bear our witness/And we will lie like river’s stones, going only where it takes us…”) suggest that she’s okay with it—but we never get any proof, she wasn’t there when William decided to offer his own life to the river, and if it were the case that she didn’t want to die, there’s no reason to think that she would have had any choice in the matter. There’s a possibility that whatever her actual thoughts on the matter, she would have been expected to just up and kill herself for William’s sake, either because she has no choice but to remain by her man’s side, or because she would be so overcome by grief at losing her True Love that she would lose all will to live.
Incidentally, there is a chance that something she went through while in the rake’s custody made her decide to die, regardless of whether she wanted it before—again, this is never spelled out. So there is the possibility that while she was with him he did something to her that made her so distraught she decided to give up on life. But that, I think, makes things worse, because it implies that she’s better off dead than having to live with the trauma of being raped, or whatever else he might have done. Am I the only one who finds this kind of…awful?
But it wouldn’t be half as awful, if only the album acknowledged what an unpleasant situation this is! Let’s talk about “Still Life” now. “Still Life” fairly expressly features an unreliable narrator—if he wasn’t insane to begin with (we don’t get anyone else’s side of the story so we don’t know if the ghosts he describes are real or not) he’s obviously meant to be seen as insane by the end. No matter how you look at it, drowning yourself and your lover so you can be with a bunch of ghosts is insane, period. And the song makes no attempts to portray what’s happening as anything but. While the Decemberists dance around the issue of these characters’ dying, attaching all sorts of euphemisms to what was happening (“A willow wand, a will-o’-wisp, our ghosts will wander along the water”), Iron Maiden put it bluntly, with no hinting or sugarcoating: “Oh…we’ll drown together/Oh…we’ll be forever/NIGHTMARES!” By the way, the chorus to “Still Life” sounds much more cheerful than most of the verses, which treads into narm early on, but by the end it serves to make it all the more terrifying. The guy sounds positively gleeful about the prospect of committing murder-suicide!
That’s the other thing about this song. I mentioned earlier how at the end of “The Hazards of Love” the question of whether or not Margaret is okay with dying isn’t properly addressed. We don’t get the lover’s side of the story in “Still Life,” but the strong implication, in fact, is that she isn’t okay with it. When the narrator of the song attempts to explain the situation to his lover, the words he uses are “Don’t you see, not just me, they want you too.” “Don’t you see” (at least in American usage, and I don’t really have any reason to think the British usage is any different) is really not something you say to someone who’s already on board with what you’re proposing—it’s what you say when you’re trying to convince someone to go along with a plan that they might demonstrate resistance to. In other words, this narrator is a murderer. He’s gone so completely insane that he’s willing to not only drown himself but murder his lover, all so they can go be with some ghosts he met in a swimming pool. Maiden aren’t trying to hide this or cover it up—it’s all right there in the song, staring you in the face! To cap it all off, the song ends with the coldly final-sounding “Now we rest in peace!” in marked contrast to the Decemberists’ “These hazards of love, nevermore will trouble us.” It’s true that the former lyric does sound kind of happy—but remember that it’s coming from an obviously unreliable narrator.
Now, you could argue that to a degree these lyrical discrepancies are the result of different genre conventions—certainly you wouldn’t expect an American indie folk-rock band to sound exactly the same as an English heavy-metal band. Maybe the Decemberists simply have looser lyrics and throw around more euphemisms in general? Yet if you actually consider the larger bodies of works produced by both bands, you see that their song writing is not quite as disparate as you might think.
Iron Maiden, although they don’t do it with “Still Life,” know how to employ loose lyrics, and even euphemisms, and they’re no stranger to trying to inject some hope into dire circumstances. Take their groundbreaking song “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” which was released before “Still Life.” Although the plot of the song is about one man’s death, it only uses any word directly related to “death” once—in the couplet “Tears flow but why am I crying?/After all I’m not afraid of dying…”—the rest of the time it approaches the issue with such eloquent phrases as “The sands of time, for me, are running low” and the famous and oft-imitated “Catch my soul, it’s willing to fly away.” Furthermore, the song ends with the assertion that “Life down here is just a strange illusion”—although, crucially, you have to listen to all the earlier verses about his fearing death before you get to it.
By the same token, the Decemberists do not throw flowery lyrics and euphemisms at every song they write, and they don’t always downplay tragedies. Songs like “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” “The Rake’s Song” (another one of "The Hazards of Love's" offerings) and “Rox in the Box” use much tighter, blunter lyrics, and go out of their way to convey that what’s going on is genuinely terrible—any euphemisms about death that might make their way into these songs only underscore how crappy the people and/or situations being illustrated are. As such, if they had wanted to end “The Hazards of Love” on an appropriately bleak note, they have the writing skills to do it. Which leads me to believe that they probably don’t view the ending as quite so horrible as it actually is.
I guess this is my long-winded, reference-heavy way of saying, if you’re going to write a song about a completely awful topic, at least have the good sense to portray it as completely awful, and not try to sugarcoat it or downplay the tragedy within, or milk it for pathos. Whenever I see something like the ending to “The Hazards of Love” (case in point: “Romeo X Juliet”) it always makes me suspicious of the guiding intelligence behind the story as a whole. It makes the story seem that much more cynical and cold, like it’s trying to manufacture audience sympathy and emotional reactions, while itself being empty, hollow, and nihilistic. And this I just can’t abide. I can’t exactly say I believe this of the Decemberists (their next album, “The King is Dead,” is enough to lay my fears to rest) but it’s never cool no matter who’s doing it.