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

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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.


  1. I totally agree. Thats the way I was interpreting the lyrics. William was obviously in a bad state when the Queen found him, dead or dieing.

    (also agree with someone further up that this is a typical Decemberist depressing version of Tam Lin. The motifs are exactly the same.)

  2. The CD insert has the lyrics as “a river's son, a forest's daughter,” but Colin sings it as “a forest's son, a river's daughter.

  3. The CD insert has the lyrics as “a river's son, a forest's daughter,” but Colin sings it as “a forest's son, a river's daughter.

  4. As she has already,,The Rake is her last child gone wrong. The Rake is Williams older brother who was influenced by the passion of the flesh, that is why the queen only allows William to be a man by nite. HMMMMM think bout it.

    1. Pamelala,

      It’s possible but I don’t think so. William’s mother is not the Queen. He was adopted by the Queen and given the ability to change shape to keep him from the world of Man by day.

      While they technically could be brothers, I don’t see anything to suggest that in the lyrics.

  5. Wow, I would’ve never gotten that out together so nicely. I guess I needed the lyric booklet. When colin sings two different characters parts I took them as the same character. Like the Rake and William. Oops. Thanks A lot.

  6. That line has bothered me , as well. I came to think its a “Don't mess with Mother Nature” line. As in, no matter how or what you do, Mother Nature still always wins.

  7. Wow! I'm late in the Game- exactly a year, apparently, but no less excited!
    So many bits in my mind. I hope people are still reading.
    I have a few ideas.

    The lines ” I pulled you and I called you here”,( I caught you /brought you) in H4 make me think that W maybe had seen M wandering around the forest before and perhaps set himself up to be in her way when she was out. He already had “the wanting”. He apparently did not actually have a broken leg… There isn't much else to support that. oooo, but I just thought of this… maybe ” the prettiest whistles cant' wrestle the thistles undone” phrase refers to HIS force of nature( when here her plans were vexed). I had already thought of that line as a reference to “you(human) can't change nature.” That would follow. The next line- “Undone”. oops
    At first I thought that this line was backwards! Obviously, he wrestled her thistle undone with his pretty whistles, but if its Nature(Q) not Her(M), it kind of makes sense.

    (the prettiest whistles cant' wrestle the thistles undone) ” In fact, this line may be the key commentary on the overall story and what is meant by the hazards of love.” Though we came to different conclusions, I have to agree with Kyle from above!
    Anyone know who or what is screamed at the end?

    There is something that seems backwards on most posts- W is NOT of the river, he is a Forest's Son. Also, a Glen is a “narrow valley” or a “small secluded valley”, so not a river. Reedy though, so wet-clearly has a river running in it.

    I've warmed up to the idea of W being Isaiah. I think all of the references to the cradle of clay and how She Labored him from Ore seems to say that she brought him back to life.
    She mentions his miseries though. ( Remember when I found you,The miseries that hounded you) and how she Stole him? From Death?
    Isaiah's part of H3 is sung by the children not W… and all the children DO return(“but Father your children all are here”), not just Isaiah. AND Isaiah is the oldest, not a baby at death. So, never mind. Not Isaiah, but probably dead. I kind of think the Rake and his children are just a good tool for the abduction and release.

    What makes M a River's Daughter? we don't know. I think she is in a nunnery(an orphan, found in the river like Moses?) and the cistern line is asking her when is she due and who is the horrible man who would defile a nun? Or maybe shes not a novice- its just an orphanage run by nuns…
    The line about lithesome maidens makes it clear they are not prostitutes(as suggested).
    I think the 14 occupations paid may be either the girls fooling around with each other or themselves… M will not be satisfied with that! Her hands clasped her thigh-that's sexual frustration, baby. It's not work- it's an idle hour, nor periods- they also don't just happen in an idle hour- what do ya do with an idle hour? and Here is M, the one whose actually had sex- thinking to the girls, ” you'll find out soon enough-“
    But Margaret heaves a sigh
    Her hands clasped to her thigh
    Singing: oh, the hazards of love
    Oh the hazards of love
    You’ll learn soon enough
    The prettiest whistles won’t wrestle the thistle undone…

    He says her waist is widening so its been some months but I find it hard to believe the Rake would want a really big pregnant girl, so I think it must be that nice time where we have a little extra meat but aren't really big yet.

    I think the rest of the story takes place in two nights. The night she runs off to find W and the next night she is abducted and saved.
    They definitely die pregnant. Again, the Rake would not take the baby, so they have no baby on the boat. There would have been some mention of the birth and definitely of the baby being left somewhere or dieing.

    thanks for this! really fun.
    If you are all not totally over this subject, we found a beautiful dance performance done by the U of Colorado. Highly recommend it!

  8. “the fruit of her amorous entwine inside her.” refers to the baby. the 'fruit' is twisting inside her.

  9. I don't know if anybody else said it, but I think “troubling the water in the cistern” refers to the breaking of the water before labor. Also, I like to think of the other woman in this as a nun, seeing as she calls Margaret “Daughter”.

  10. I think the idea of Margaret giving birth before the abduction is interesting. After the demise of Margaret and William, who would be left to raise the child but the Queen or perhaps the convent? Full circle.

  11. a cistern holds clean water, so the comment about Margaret having her next cycle cannot be- it must refer to “when will you give birth”, hence, her water breaking.

  12. Since this has been going on and off for a very long time, I’m going to throw this out there.

    What is the evidence that William rescues Margaret? We know the ghosts of the Rake’s children interrupt his rape of Margaret, so why does she need to be rescued? Why doesn’t she escape and find William drowning? Maybe he pulls her down with him literally as well as figuratively, as she attempts in vain to rescue him, or throws herself in after him when it is clear he has no hope of survival, but not before putting her child safely aside.

    This is what is meant by “broad strokes.” So many interpretations are valid.

    I also suspect an intentional symbolic story overlaid over the narrative. This might be too trippy, but here goes: The Rake and William are symbolically the same husband at different stages of the marraige, and the Queen and Margaret, the same wife. William becomes the Rake over time as his wife’s mothering instinct reduces her sex drive, and his sex drive remains undiminished but unsatisfied. The Queen is Margaret, after she becomes obsessed with her mothering of a child. The irony of this is that the child (so touchingly cooed over by Willaim and Margaret in the album’s middle) and the river both represent the Hazards of Love, the source and the sensation of the antipathy that develops between man and woman as she becomes more and more a mother and he remains primarily a husband.

    It is a cynical view of relationships, but one that has some basis in real-world observations. And the narrative becomes more than a pretty, if tragic story – its an allegory.

    Now I’m going to sober up and go to sleep!

    1. I only noticed your comment after posting my own. 100% agree about William and Rake being symbolically the same. You wrote this up in a much better way though 🙂

  13. Wow, this was great! I had a good idea of what was going on, but character role-wise, this clears a lot up.
    But musically wise, I wanted to point out a few things, mostly theory. We’re very much aware of how different this style is, and in the heavier parts with the Queen I would even relate it to something Tool has done.
    But most prominant is definitely the similarity to PInk Floyd, particularly the Wall album. The style of music is VERY similar, and certain parts I feel are close enough to Pink Floyd to not be accidental.
    What first got my attention was at the very end of the Hazards of Love 1, the screaming voice in the faint background sounds very similar to the beginning of Another Brick in the Wall by Floyd. Then the melody of A Bower Scene reminds me very much of Run Like Hell. Finally, the breakup of The Hazards of Love into several parts (And yes, I know the Decemberists have done this before) parallels to The Wall 1, 2, etc on that album. Are the Decemberists trying to parallel with Floyd? Who knows. I could just be rambling.

  14. If you’re looking for influences on this album, I’d check out “Nursery Cryme” by Genesis, especially track 7, “The Fountain of Salmacis.”

  15. Superb recap on the albums story. Really helped bring into focus quite a few details I was missing.

    I did have one objection though. There is certain evidence that a taiga could have existed among the British isles in days long since past, when the local climate was a bit colder. Maybe a possibility that he was speaking literally there.

    Thanks again 🙂

  16. Just my thoughts on an already posted idea.
    The controversial “Cistern” line, in my opinion, is referring to the lack of menstruation.
    The use of Cistern is similar to the metaphor of a “well” as a “vagina” used in the sexual interpretation of “What Mystery Pervades a Well” by Emily Dickinson.
    Emily Dickinson was from a Puritan community which resonates with some of the other Puritan literary devices in the album.
    So I think that the “troubled cistern” refers to a troubled vagina, trouble being menstruation?

  17. I just wanted to comment on one thing. Whether Rake and William are one and the same is not certain, however one should notice the similarities. I think it is a good thing that William and Margaret drowned, because what if they didn’t and William would have had the same fate as Rake. William and Margaret’s love starts off as purely physical/sexual attraction. Isn’t there a possibility that William would hate his children since Margaret would no longer be entirely free to be only his. Rake represents, at least to a degree, a struggle that many fathers have when their wives pay more attention to the children.

    I wonder if anyone would even read this, since it has been a while since the album’s release. This is the 1st time that I listened to the Decemberists’ whole album. This really helped me understand the story, since English is not my native language and I do not possess as rich of a vocabulary as Colin Meloy. Thank you for the great interpretation.

  18. I would Like to think that in the end the baby is floating in a small clay cradle in the Annan waters to be found by the queen just as his father was and so the story repeats it self again.

  19. Thanks for this! It certainly helped clear a lot of the story up for me. Just two little notes.

    Annan Water is the subject of an old Scottish ballad, where specifically a man’s love, Annie, drowns in the waves. You can check it here, but here’s a qutoe:

    And wae betide ye, Annan Water!
    This night ye are a drumly river;
    But over thee we’ll build a brig,
    That ye nae mair true love may sever.

    The other thing… the title “bower scene” clearly refers to Margaret’s bedroom,… or it could also refer to the village of Bàgair (anglicized to Bower), on the northern tip of Scotland. Given the reference to Offa’s Wall, I don’t see any reason for the forest not to be reference to the entirety of Britain, and the story just to have “epic scale”…

  20. Yes, thank you as everyone has said. I just recently came across this album, added it to the ITunes shuffle, and finally listened to it as a whole from start to finish one day and was enchanted by the story. Thank you for breaking it down I am going to listen to the album again right now.

  21. For me the cistern comment is odd for totally different reasons. The song feels as though set at least several hundred years ago, when no member of society below royalty would have had anything as hi-tech as a flush toilet with a cistern. Going with the other interpretation of cistern, that of a large reserve of water for drinking, washing, cooking supplies is a little more likely to my thinking, although to be honest i’m not sure anyone ever worried too much about a potential water shortage in either Wales or Scotland, it never stops raining, there are streams and rivers everywhere aplenty!

  22. Maybe I’m off-base, but as for the baby I always liked to think that William was Margaret’s baby (Colin Meloy is brainy enough to emply the Oedipal complex) and the story was stuck in a loop; however, I also like the idea that William is Isiah.

  23. Great post!

    I’m a big fan of British folk music and it seems to me this whole album is influenced heavily by the stories behind many traditional songs. For instance the theme of a mortal and a supernatural lover, a cruel mother, and a river that is crossed with the promise of claiming them on their return. This last one actually crops up quite a lot, (along with the cruel mother) in the song “Drowned Lovers”- which also has a hero and heroine named William and Margaret. The version by the singer Kate Rusby has the lyrics (from the mother to William) :

    “Well if you go to fair Margaret’s bower
    without the leave of me,
    In the deepest part of the Clyde water,
    then drowned you will be.”

    When Williams comes to the river:

    “Oh, roaring Clyde, you roar so loud,
    your steams are wondrous stong,
    Make me a wreck as I come back,
    but spare me as I’m gone.”

    Her cruel mother turns him away, so he returns, and tries to cross the river but is taken by it. Margaret then wakes up and, hearing that her William has been to visit her, chases after him, until she reaches the river, and step by step enters to look for him, until “in the deepest part of the Clyde water she’s found sweet William in”:

    “You have had a cruel mother Willie,
    and I have had another,
    And now we’ll sleep in the Clyde water
    like sister and like brother.”

    …Which suggest that in this tale William and Margaret never married and never slept with each other either, and Margaret never became pregnant. Other than that it’s very close to the Hazards of Love story, with the exception of the Rake (a typically gothic touch from the Decemberists) so I’m sure they must have been aware of this traditional tale when they wrote the album.

    As for the unhappy ending….well it follows the traditional stories: lovers who would give everything to be together, and are happy to die for it if necessary. It seems to suggest somehow that they will remain together in the river – not going on to live in an afterlife but to haunt the river, or perhaps to guard it and warn future young lovers away. Perhaps this is because, unlike the William and Margaret in the Drowned Lovers tale, they did sleep together and Margaret became pregnant out of wedlock, so perhaps (in their interpretation at least) there would be no place for them in heaven?

    As for geographical location, I don’t think it will be a specific place – there are so many traditional British folk songs that have spread right through England, Ireland, Scotland, and sometimes into Wales (although very few were written down from Wales so it’s hard to know – the Methodists made sure of that) and evolved slightly as they transfered by word-of-mouth and traveling labourers moving from one place to the other. So they were sort of non-specific, or with the names of the rivers and towns changed to fit in with the particular singers location.

    Anyway, that’s my two penny’s worth! Thanks again for a great interpretation!

  24. I’m sooo late to this party, but I wanted to add my two cents to the mix as I only just discovered this album and absolutely love it. I really appreciated this page and all the wisdom shared here, it made my own conclusions that much easier to suss out. I have three points to make.

    First, “the cistern” line.

    The music is decidedly dark at this point, so I highly doubt that the question is as innocent as, “when are you due?” It also spurs her to run, so I don’t think it’s a sweet little old nun asking when to prepare for the baby’s baptism. On the other hand, cisterns are on the small side and contain drinking water, so I highly doubt anyone wants Margaret to jump in and drown herself, leaving a dead body in the water. Not cool to pollute the water that way, ya’ know?.

    After some thought I decided that the line implies that Margaret is expected to drown her newborn in the cistern when the time comes. Drowning a baby in a cistern, then removing it, wouldn’t be as offensive as throwing yourself in. It sets up her desire to run and makes “Isn’t a lovely night?” all the more poignant, as Margaret obviously wants this child and is loathe to do “the honorable thing”. Coincidentally, the very thing we so despise the Rake for doing…

    Second, the Rake’s demise.

    I see a double meaning in the line “and here come the waves” in the reprise of The Wanting Comes in Waves. I’m pretty well convinced that the ghosts of the children drive the Rake into the Annan Water. The old folk tales like this will frequently personify the river and, having been cheated out of drowning him on his first pass, they would be eager to take him to a watery grave should he be foolish enough to come close again. “The wanting comes in waves” can be seen as the river wanting the Rake and claiming its prize as he seeks to avoid the children’s ghosts.

    Third, the baby.

    Now, “and here comes the waves” could very well have a clever double meaning. Not only the waves that come to drown the Rake, but also the waves of labor washing over our poor mistreated Margaret. “The wanting comes in waves” can easily be a metaphor for a premature labor and birth. After the trauma of her abduction, Margaret delivers her child.

    Unfortunately, the child does not survive. This is clearly referenced by the line “Margaret array the rocks around the hole”. In the time before expensive, carved headstones were available, graves were often filled and covered with rocks to mark the site. Margaret’s grief at the loss of her child is inconsolable (“painting rings around your eyes these peppered holes so filled with crying”).

    Think about it. If William had arrived in time and the babe survived, wouldn’t they merely run off to start a new life? Why drown yourselves and abandon your healthy child? (poetic license that completes the cycle aside, it seems silly). At no point are we informed that the Rake takes Margaret to an island. Presumably they could simply walk away from the Annan Water, never to return. However, the heartbreak over losing her child and possibly the physical damage she suffered during her ordeal and birth would make the idea of suicide appealing. After all, the loss of a much-wanted child is indeed another “hazard of love”. I want to thank the person who mentioned that the line “a forest’s son, a river’s daughter” was an inquiry into the gender of the stillborn child. It makes sense to me.

    Such a magical and amazing piece. Thanks for helping me to enjoy it all the more!!

    1. Just noticed your post, after posting mine. Two very late arrivals are we! See my comments on the fate of the Rake and the double meaning behind “the wanting comes in waves” in the reprise.

  25. I realize I’m coming to the discussion waaay late, but nonetheless…
    1 criticism, 1 comment, and 1 question.

    In general, I think this is an excellent interpretation, and although it differs from my original take, I think you have the right of it. However, as long as I look in the lyrics, I can find no evidence that the Rake dies, gets killed by William, or goes insane. In fact, we don’t hear any more from him at all after “Margaret in Captivity”. Sure, we hear his children return to try to haunt him, but we already know that even if we “expect that you think that I should be haunted”, “it never really bothers” him at all. So perhaps, to add to the sadness of the entire story, it may be that Dawn, Charlotte, and Isaiah have returned in vain, and that all their tormented cries are blissfully ignored by the evil Rake. He may be the only one who gets a happy ending; a perfect ending for a tragic story – the villain escapes unscathed. As much as we’d like to see the Rake get his comeuppance, there is no support for this anywhere in the lyrics that I can find. If anyone sees any solid evidence of this, please let me know.

    Comment: I didn’t see anyone else comment on the possible double meaning of “waves” in the reprise. Previously, the ‘wanting’ William referred to was a wanting for love, for life as a man, for Margaret. And it came in waves, on and off, along with his double life as a man/fawn. But now that he knows they are doomed, and he has made his pact with the river, he welcomes death rather than the life of captivity/bondage promised by the Queen. So now the ‘wanting’ is death, and it comes in the waves of the raging Annan water. Hence “the wanting comes in waves.” Just a guess.

    Lastly, a question. Does anyone have a notion of what William is referring to when he says, “rest my breast about her amber ring”? With all the other symbolism and archaic references in this brilliant work, it makes me doubt that this refers to a simple ring on her finger made of amber.

  26. Great write-up, and lots of great post-analysis in the comments here. I don’t have much more to add except to follow up on the many praises of the voice of The Queen, sung so exquisitely by Shara Worden. The selection of Ms. Worden was pure genius, for her vocal skills come not just by genetic happenstance: she has a university degree in Opera. Her ability to perfectly capture the nuance of mood and emotion in The Queen is phenomenal.

  27. Thank you very much for explanation. You’ve did GREAT job.
    After looking up hundreds of words in dictionary (English is not my native:( ) your work REALLY helped to find answers and to listen and enjoy the beauty of the album.

    Thank you very much.

  28. First of all, i really like the idea of the story being cyclical, noting the line about the bones in the river. If thats the case, i have problem with William being the Rake’s son. How can William be born by the Rake if he is really born by Margaret? And if William is the Rake, where did his first 2 children go?

    If we nixed the cyclical idea, and said that William is the Rake, why would he care about his children? he was a fawn by day, so he could just leave them behind.

  29. Finding this was great, thanks for taking the time to do it.

    Something crossed my mind and maybe it makes no sense, but well, just for the sake of it: the whole thing about Margaret troubling the water in the cistern; and later on about her being “a river’s daughter”. Even though the printed lyrics say otherwise, let’s take it they really meant River’s daughter.

    It never said she had trouble crossing the river. The Rake was the one that needed help. And later on, William. If the Margaret was really born from the River, maybe troubling the water was about either her giving birth or “talking” to her origin about being pregnant (which seemed to bother those who lived with her). And coming from the River, not needing help to cross it, she could’ve survived in the end, but the last song implies that they both died. So maybe she went willingly.

    I don’t know. Maybe this is just an idealization. But I like the idea anyway.

  30. reading your interpretation was really helpful, thanks. As you drew your conclusion I couldn’t help but feel that the story has the potential to be self perpetuating if one does not mind imagining that the child was somehow abandoned in the rush… it could lend to explain how the Queen finds an abandoned child. Seems it could be another possible facet to the story line… don’t you love time travel?

  31. Here’s one thing that makes the story alot more interesting… I know this isn’t what was intended, but what if the rake is the one who impregnates margaret and william is looking at her from a distance?

  32. Sad to have found this so late, but I only recently ‘discovered’ the Decemberists! The complexity of their song meanings is definitely part of the appeal. I have a theory I haven’t seen mentioned–is it possible that the Infanta (from the song of the same name on Picaresque) could be Margaret and William’s child? At the end of the song, the lyrics are: “And the babe, all in slumber dreams
    Of a place filled with quiet streams
    And the lake where her cradle was pulled from the water.”
    It’s made clear that the Infanta was found by the water, and is not the biological child of the king and queen, but nothing more is explained about her origin.
    Knowing that they’ve linked songs from different albums this way before (Meloy stated that ‘Leslie Ann Levine’ was the sequel to ‘We Both Go Down Together’), I wonder if these two might also be linked?
    Great explanation of the album and discussion–lots of food for thought!

  33. Firstly, I’d like to extend my undying gratitude for this explanation and all the comments that followed. Hearing this album has been and will continue to be a spiritually and psychologically enriching experience. Obviously, the literary complexity of these songs leaves me fascinated, enchanted, but also mind-boggled at times, so this discussion comes with great satisfaction, and I love seeing all the different points of view from different listeners. That being said, I would like to partake in the discussion and share some conclusions that I’ve arrived at after listening through many times and reading all these great comments. Also, I would like to add that I may have missed some key hidden meanings in the lyrics, and I’ll be the first to admit that I cannot make heads or tails of some parts yet, so PLEASE if you have any reply to my conclusions it would be greatly appreciated. I know I wrote a whole bunch and it might be kind of a drag to read, but if you do decide to read it, I only ask that you read all of it and carefully before giving feedback. Alright, here goes:

    My first thought that differs from most of these theories is that William and Margaret’s baby was born during “Isn’t it a Lovely Night?” The previous song expresses the love and happiness that they both share with each other and it seems redundant to me that they would again express these feelings in two consecutive songs… unless, of course, something wonderful and life changing occurred, such as their baby being born. If this is the case, then it follows that when the Rake kidnapped Margaret, he left the baby abandoned in the forest where William and Margaret had made their little love nest. This supports the idea of the story being cyclical; a baby abandoned in the woods seemingly destined to be “rescued” by the Queen. This also, as a response to Kya in an earlier comment, gives William and Margaret an incentive to cross Annan Water again, to try to get back to their baby. This makes sense to me from what I understand, but Kya brings up the good point that the lyrics in the last song indicate Margaret as being in a state of mourning and having already taken measures for a sort of funeral. Unfortunately, the first six lines of “Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)” are quite incomprehensible to me.
    My second thought involves simply the location of William during “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” It seems to me that after “Isn’t it a Lovely Night?” the rest of the events in the story happens in the span of one night, the last night for William to be free of the Queen before she takes him forever. The Queen catches William with Margaret and gets furious, but William bargains with her then and there because he needs to be with Margaret and the new born baby on the night of the birth. This is another reason why I think the baby is born on that night; it seemed strange to me that William would risk it all so blatantly to spend a random night with Margaret. If the baby was not in the picture, it seems more like that William would bide his time and wait for the opportune moment to run off with Margaret, instead of pleading to his mom to let him spend one night. The birth of his child, however, in addition to being caught in the act, would give William enough incentive to lie to his mother’s face and plead for just one more night in exchange for a life of servitude.

    Well, there it is! If you took the time to read, thank you sooo much, I really appreciate it. And thanks to the person who wrote this explanation in the first place for giving me this opportunity to share my ideas about something I’ve come to love.

  34. My only disagreement is that they most certainly did not swim, they had a boat to cross Annan Water with in Hazards 4. “Margaret arrayed the rocks around the hull as it was sinking”, along with “A million holes within the chinking”, the chinking being part of a log construction.

    1. It’s conceivable that they swam, since on the Decembrists’ website the lyrics are written as: “William: Margaret, array [an imperative] the rocks around the hole before we’re sinking. A million stones, a million bones, a million holes within the chinking.” Multiple interpretations are possible, of course.

  35. Great interpretation, and much like Tommy, the music is there for you to interpret the story for yourself. I listened to it again after reading this interpretation, and theres one thing that kind of jumps out at me. The song Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!) The rake has already been killed and his punishment is to have to spend eternity with his murdered children, who were basically the bane of his existence. Perhaps it could even be viewed as somewhat of a redemption. This time, he can’t escape them and they’ll be together eternally.

  36. Not sure if this has been suggested, but one possible reading of the ambiguity around the child could be that the Queen rescues him from the river and the entire cycle begins again.

  37. What I want to know is why William and Margaret even have to cross back over the Annan. Why didn’t they just leave for France?

  38. Just discovered this album and I’ve been listening to it while I run. When I got to the last song, I stopped dead in my tracks! I had to relisten to the whole album on the way home. Beautifully done! Thanks so much for writing this all out. I’ve really enjoyed reading everyone’s comments and ideas as well!

  39. Great exploration of the themes. 🙂
    Only one correction, when you refer to the people of Wales, it’s “Welsh” and not “Welch”. Welshie here! 😉

  40. A clay cradle “in the reedy glen” is the riverbed. William was drowned and dead as a baby, and the Queen gave him life and wrought him a new form. His want for Margaret (the waves) and desire to return to mortality ultimately allow the river to reclaim him. The story IS circular – I think the queen claims Margaret’s baby from the water, and we’re back at the beginning.

  41. Great analysis. That said, I’m reasonably certain the concept (and a very few of the lines) are lifted directly from traditional ballad called, varyingly, “The Drowned Lovers” or “Clyde’s Water.” The man (initially called Willie though his full name is revealed later to be William) plans to go visit his lover Margaret. His mother begs him to stay, and says that if he goes without her consent he will either be cursed or drown in the deepest part of the Clyde water (the texts vary based on who sings it). He goes anyway, and when he comes to the river he says “Make me a wreck when I come back/ but spare me as I’m going.” This is the line that makes me almost positive that Colin Meloy was at least aware of this ballad when he wrote the Hazards of Love, since William sings in “Annan Water:” “You may render me a wreck when I come back.” Here the plot of the two diverges, but in both stories the lovers end up drowned together.

    Obviously, this doesn’t detract in any way from the quality of The Hazards of Love. Frankly, I think it’s a bit like Shakespeare: none of his plots were original, but they were much better than the source material, though I’m personally quite fond of “The Drowned Lovers” (the Kate Rusby version).

  42. I do not think Margaret survives the abduction. To me, it is clear that the rake has his way with her, and then kills here. Him killing again stirs up the ghosts of his children. Then, while William struggles to get to Margaret quickly, he sings his theme (the wanting comes in waves) heroically, but at the end of the wanting come in waves (reprise) the music is chaotic then ends abruptly as William finds Margaret’s body on the other shore of the river. They do not kill the Rake, for he is the narrator of the story, he says so at the end of te rakes song. In the hazards of love 4 William lies with the body of his Margaret whom he decorated with flowers and Margaret sings in the background, as if from the grave. They are “wed” in the water as William kisses her lifeless body and the song reverts back to 3rd person as a wave crashes because William drowns. The point of the hazards of love album is that not all love stories are perfect, archetypal ones. Colin revolutionizes storytelling in this album by not reuniting the lovers, and not killing the bad guy, letting the rake destroy himself with guilt and having to tell the story of the lovers.

  43. Thanks a million for making sense of an album that I always liked musically but never bothered to truly understand, until now. Owing to your help I can appreciate it the way it should be from here on out.

  44. Wow, great post! I’ll definitely be sharing this. I’m revisiting the album bc I have tix to see them in April in Boston. I definitely didn’t have the story mapped out the way you did – thanks for taking the time!

  45. Great synopsis to a brilliant album. However, I believe that the Rake did leave his mark on Margaret. Him ‘Clipping’ her ‘wingspan’ a reference to him beginning his vile deeds. I also believe as a result of this crime, the child Margret was carrying sadly dies. ‘A forest’s son. A river’s daughter?’ possibly being a line that suggests that their child’s soul is already part of the bones of the forest and that Margret doesn’t reply could be because is in silent grief about their lost child.

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