Like watching a child learn how to ride a bike, fans watch their
favorite indie band move to major label with a mixture of trepidation
and anticipation. Will they—God forbid—be corrupted by the big leagues?
Fortunately, The Decemberists’ fans can relax: with “The Crane
Wife,” Colin Meloy and company have delivered their sharpest, most
accomplished album yet, and one of the best albums of the year.
On past albums, The Decemberists have excelled at telling
hyper-literate picaresque stories, mixing prankish whimsy and haunting
tragedy. But on “The Crane Wife,” the Decemberists have finally created
a full and dynamic sound that matches their lyrical and narrative
sophistication. Rather than simply accompanying the stories, the music
now forms an integral part of each song’s individual content and
character, giving each track a unique atmosphere.
The album opens in medias res with “The Crane Wife #3,” the
sensuous and sorrowful conclusion of a three-part epic based on a
Japanese myth. Singer-songwriter Meloy’s repeated lament, “I will hang
my head / hang my head low” sets the tone for album’s folk-rock journey
through tales of calamity, personal loss, and unsavory deeds.
The second song, “The Island,” a three-part, 12-minute epic
inspired by “The Tempest,” captures the spirit of the album: beautiful
lyrics, a tragic narrative, and a wild variety of sounds. The first
part, “Come and See,” rumbles along with a low, sinister guitar riff,
building tension as Meloy describes an island shipwreck.
Part two, “The Landlord’s Daughter,” explodes to a mad,
kaleidoscopic organ climax as the stranded sailors rape an islander
(“I’ll take no gold, miss / I’ll take no silver / I’ll take your sweet
lips”). Then the song flows into “You’ll Not Feel the Drowning,” a
soft, dark acoustic denouement.
“The Island” is mirrored by the penultimate song, “The Crane
Wife 1 & 2,” the first two parts of the suite concluded by the
opening song. With a restrained sound, “The Crane Wife” gradually
builds from acoustic strumming to full band crescendo. The story itself
is, like most on the album, a tragic saga about kindness, greed, and
A whiff of saltpeter hangs over “When the War Came,” The
Decemberists’ most overtly political song. They bring out their heavy
guitars and sound almost like a mainstream rock band—except for lyrics
like “We made our huts of avaram / We’d not betray the sole Ledum.”
Other songs tread on more familiar territory for The
Decemberists. “Shankill Butchers,” a macabre lullaby about a gang of
savage Northern Irish killers, could be this album’s “Clementine.”
Similarly reminiscent of earlier albums, the following track,
“Summersong,” is a wonderfully breezy folk-pop story of waning summer
The slight disappointment stems from some of the narratives
themselves. Although several stories are vintage Decemberists, others
fail to live up to the band’s lofty standards. The characters are an
oddball menagerie, but too many songs fall in the trap of
tried-and-true boilerplate plots. Stories about thieving thieves
(“Perfect Crime #2”), lovers separated by war (“Yankee Bayonet”), and
star-crossed lovers (“O Valencia!”) feel almost formulaic.
But, that said, if these arcane stories feel
slightly repetitive, it is only because of Meloy’s previous success—no
other band comes remotely close to his tragic sketches and roguish
tales. Although one can imagine Capitol Record’s hand behind
radio-perfect songs like “O Valencia!” or the disco-beat of “Perfect
Crime #2,” by and large the Decemberists newfound musical depth
naturally fits Meloy’s sublime stories.
—Reviewer Piotr C. Brzezinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.