CD of the Week: The Decemberists, "The Crane Wife"

5 Stars

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 misfortune.

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 love.

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 pcbrzez@fas.harvard.edu.