The Decemberists

The Crane Wife

(Capitol; 2006)

By Matt Stephens | 6 October 2006

It can be a sad thing to witness, but I don’t think there’s a band in history whose earnest efforts to evolve left them sounding even more like themselves quite like the Decemberists. While each successive album and EP has seen them broadening their instrumental palate, toying with new song structures, and (perhaps most notably) improving their chops, the trajectory of these refinements has been so linear that after spinning any of their records for the first time you could hazard a pretty good guess what each of the next two were gonna sound like. An extra sprinkle of bombast, another song or two approaching the ten-minute mark, straightforward pop songs bigger and more polished than the ones that came before--all this while steadfastly inhabiting Colin Meloy’s whimsical and archaic language and subject matter. It’s not necessarily a bad quality; Colin Meloy is one of the most dependably hummable songwriters in the biz, and if you can handle his neutered drawl and relentlessly cutesy stories of pirates and soldiers and loose women and, um, chimbley sweeps, he’s an awfully consistent guy.

The Crane Wife, the band’s fourth album and first for Capitol Records finds them traipsing further into loftier prog-folk territory, and while it continues pretty faithfully down the path beaten by Picaresque (2005) and The Tain (2004), it also throws a couple of curveballs that suggest Colin Meloy may end up deciding against becoming a twee Rick Wakeman after all. It’s not their most cohesive or catchiest record, and it could stand to be pared down by ten or fifteen minutes, but there will be few wittier and more memorable rock albums released this year.

Most of the ink on The Crane Wife has been devoted to the two ten-minute plus song suites that (kinda) bookend the album. The three-part title track series (curiously sequenced with the third part opening the album as a standalone song, and parts 1 and 2 merged into one track towards the end) tells a pretty coherent version of an old Japanese fable that apparently goes something like this: a man finds a sick crane, nurses it back to health, and sets it free. Soon thereafter, a woman comes knocking on his door who subsequently becomes his wife. He’s poor, so he sets her to work making weaving silk, only on her condition that he never be allowed to see her while she is doing so. Their business is profitable, and as time passes he becomes more and more greedy until one day he happens to walk in to find the same crane he took care of weaving silk. The crane flies away and he never sees it or his wife again. Meloy tells this relatively involved tale with feeling and concision--there aren’t many bands that would dare try a song suite of this nature, and fewer still that could tell its story coherently, and with such melodic prowess. The other of the album’s marathon tracks, “The Island,” is not quite so revelatory. Awkward and overlong with too many wandering passages and questionable transitions, it puts a hamper on an otherwise excellent first half.

Of course, most of the album is just Meloy doing what Meloy does best. “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)” and “O Valencia” are both the kind of smart and addictive folk pop songs he’s been writing since 5 Songs (2001), historical lost-love tragicomedies with hooks you’ll be singing along with by the second time you hear them. Neither pack quite enough commercial punch to make me think Capitol made a wise business decision with these guys, but they’re both sturdy mixtape additions, particularly if your girlfriend is a history major. As predictable, though less successful are “The Shankill Butchers” and “Summersong”--the former a prototypical creepy lullaby warning of wayward hooligans, the latter a distinctly unmemorable minor-key accordion ditty with very little going for it.

This leaves the album’s two middle songs, both of which constitute the only parts of The Crane Wife that come out of left field. The first is the stunning “The Perfect Crime 2,” an insistent and sexy (!) five minute burner replete with a slinky bass line, funky keyboards and a completely kickass cowbell appearance. It’s unlike anything the band’s tried before, and they carry it off way better than they ought to have. Meloy’s voice sounds brooding and fierce (still pretty airy-fairy, though) and the band seems to be having a blast playing it; you will have a lot of trouble sitting still. The much less successful “When The War Came” finds Meloy flirting with heavy metal, resulting in one of the more tuneless and disposable songs in his catalogue.

These little nuggets aside, though, The Crane Wife sounds just like what a Decemberists major label debut ought to, and exactly what it was expected to. Meloy’s ever-multiplying prog-rock ambitions are well on their way to swallowing him whole, but for now he seems to be comfortable enough as a guy writing sweet folk pop songs alongside ever-shifting song suites and polite hard rock. While the indie kid in me wishes he would try something a little bit more intimate or subtle the next time around, Meloy is clearly having so much fun writing this stuff, and the band carries it off so well live that I doubt we’ve heard the last 11-minute song in their repertoire. For the moment, The Decemberists remains one of the most likeable and dependable units in their genre, and one that sees its limitations but stays dead-set on toppling over them as theatrically as possible.