The Decemberists got ambitious on their major-label debut, "The Crane Wife," released in 2006 by Capitol. Frontman Colin Meloy's cerebral, bookish spin on a tragic Japanese folk tale was augmented with grandiose arrangements, including two songs that ran more than 12 minutes.

The album was a big hit, selling 289,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, close to 100,000 more than the band's final Kill Rock Stars release, "Picaresque." So the follow-up could have gone one of two ways.

"The album was going to be either quiet and subdued or just way over the top and ostentatious," Meloy recalls. "And we went for the latter."

The result is "The Hazards of Love," which Capitol will release March 24. The 17-song concept album takes common folk motifs and weaves them into a longform narrative, while dabbling in everything from acoustic interludes to heavy guitar rock. The story concerns the trials and tribulations of Margaret; her lover, William; the queen of a spooky forest; and a rake who interferes in it all.

The term "rock opera" has already been tossed around to describe it, a description that Meloy doesn't protest. One reason is because he started working on "Hazards" as a theater piece, not as an album. "I like to think of it as a play through voices—something that you would sit and listen to," Meloy explains. "If you're going to attach 'opera' to it, then it's more of a 'folk opera'—from the folk idiom. But then you get in trouble with the deep musical theater traditionalists. It's sort of an experimental narrative, if anything."

Meloy cites the Stephen Sondheim musical "Into the Woods" as a comparison, since the plot intertwines the characters of fairy tales. On first listen, "Hazards" is not easy to digest, but Melody maintains the narrative is rather simple, even by Decemberists standards.

"The Margarets and the Williams exist in too many folk songs to recount," he says. "And they're all kind of the same character: a young person, desperately in need for love. And regardless to what terrible things befall them, I thought, 'Why not make them exist through this narrative where they're all going through these events that happen in the folk songs, and see how they end up?' "

Fans got an early preview of the material in January when the band the offered a free download of "The Rake's Song," and "The Hazards of Love 1" is streaming on MySpace. Through a partnership with Rough Trade, to which the band is signed overseas, the Decemberists will hold a contest with film school students to create a video for an as-yet-undetermined track. And in the States, a "design the poster" contest is in progress around the band's performance in March at South by Southwest.

That show, to be held March 18 at Stubb's Bar-B-Q, will be broadcast on NPR stations around the country and streamed live on NPR's Web site. Most important, it will be the first time the public gets a taste of "Hazards" from start to finish. An exclusive 7-inch vinyl single is also slated to come out on Record Store Day in April.

The Decemberists will perform the album in its entirety throughout their spring tour, which begins May 19 in Los Angeles and wraps June 10 at New York's Radio City Music Hall. And now that all is said and done, Meloy is pleased "Hazards" turned into something fans will be able to experience as rock'n'roll, rather than musical theater.

"I like it existing just as a record. There is no literal playing out of the action—the action is all happening in your head, leaving it a little loose," he says. "The story, in places, is sort of nonsensical. I like it best with people just listening to it and making their own inferences."