The Decemberists: “The Crane Wife”

The Decemberists’ new release, and first on a major label, The Crane Wife, holds some personal significance to me. This is my first “third generation” album, if you will. By that, I mean this is a second new release from an artist I already followed. I was never able to initially enjoy the first new releases, as I longed for the music I knew previously. I would always fault the new releases for not being exactly the same as the old. To me, musical change was bad. However, I was persistent. I continued to give each new release a chance and eventually I grew to love and enjoy the new albums as much as the old.

The Crane Wife is my new challenge. I have already experience one new release from the Decemberists. It took some time, but that album, Picaresque, eventually grew on me. Now The Crane Wife sits before me. My second chance to hear something new from a band that I already favor. Would I be able to enjoy it from the first listen?

Well, I passed that test with flying colours. The Crane Wife was enjoyable from the moment I pressed play.

Previous releases from the Decemberists have featured epic and grandiose opening tracks. From the swooping cello on “Leslie Anne Levine,” to the thunderous drums on “The Infanta” and finally to the creeks and cranks of a pirate ship on “Shanty for the Aretheusa.” These songs set the mood for the remainder of each album. In contrast, “The Crane Wife 3” opens with light rock while ever so slowly building to awe-inspiring power chords at the very end. Yes, you read that right, the Decemberists have discovered power chords.

The Crane Wife is a bit of a musical departure for the Decemberists. Worry not, for this departure is quite organic, while the whimsical and literary lyrics that we all expect and love are as strong and effective as ever.

Critics often compare the Decemberists to such contemporary acts as Neutral Milk Hotel or Belle & Sebastian. While I would be hesitant to argue against those comparisons, I have always felt that the Decemberists more closely follow the Brit-folk of Led Zeppelin, on particular display on Led Zeppelin III and interspersed throughout their catalog. We can ignore The Decemberists Portland roots, they are a band of the world. The use words such as “chimbley.” Lead vocalist Colin Meloy has a stronger British accent in his singing voice than most vocalists who are actually British. We can save the discussion for the accuracies within that accent for another time.

The Decemberists can even turn the intensity up a bit, just listen to their EP, The Tain, and you can hear the Decemberists rock epically as hard as anyone.
It is from this Brit-folk that The Crane Wife departs. The Decemberists break out the synthesizer, the power chords, and a very tight production to sound, well, downright progressive. That’s right, many a song is clearly in the league of The Moody Blues, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and even The Who.

This prog-rock is evident on the second track, “The Island: Come and See–The Landlord’s Daughter–You’ll Not Feel the Drowning”. With a title like that, how can the song not be prog? This ten minute long tune will have you question whether you are listening to Yes or Styx. Except it is actually good. With lyrics like, “As I was rambled / Down by the water / I spied in sable / The landlord’s daughter / Produced my pistol, then my saber / To make no whistle or thou will be murdered” how can this song not succeed?

Another progressive rock offering, “The Perfect Crime #2” opens with a funk-inspired baseline. There is even a hint of the ’80s contained within this story of crime, just don’t ask what happened to “The Perfect Crime #1.”

“The Crane Wife 1 & 2” continue where the power chords of “The Crane Wife 3” left off. Together, the title track tells the tale of a tragic Japanese fable in three movements. The story involves a poor man finding a wounded crane in the woods. He nurses the crane back to health, when it then flies away. Soon a woman appears at his door, they fall in love and marry. The woman weaves a special clothe to help them to get by, but only with the promise that the poor man not watch her work. Well as all tragic fables do, the tale ends sadly when one day the poor man peaks in on his wife weaving only to find the crane that he had helped save. The crane, his wife, flies away. It is within this song that The Decemberists are able to meld their traditional storytelling with subtle elements of the newly discovered progressive rock.

If this progressive rock is not for you, then have no fear, there are plenty of “traditional” Decemberists fair as well. “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)” is a poppy number more in the tradition of the “The Chimbley Sweep” or “The Sporting Life.” Colin Meloy teams with part-time Decemberist Laura Veirs to share the vocals in an extremely effective duet. This is one path I would not mind The Decemberists traveling a bit further down. Adding contrasting female vocals for two or three songs an album could help liven up the mood and add some needed vocal diversity.

The Songs of love, “O Valencia!” and “Summersong,” together with the lament, “Shankill Butchers,” would fit right in amongst any of the three previous releases. The Decemberists know how to tell a tale of love and they do not disappoint at all. “Shankill Butchers” on the other hand, is a slow, precise, harrowing warning. “The shankill butchers on the rise / They’re waiting till the dead of night / They-re picking at their fingers with their knives / And wiping off their cleavers on their thighs / Cause everybody knows… / The shankill butchers wanna kill you.” Meloy’s vocals are especially on display and work to perfectly set the mood. Try playing this song for tricker treaters on Halloween while dressing up as knife wielding vagabond. That might scare a few kids… if that’s your thing.

Remember those Led Zeppelin comparisons before? “When the War Came” is straight blues rock along the lines of “Four Sticks” or “No Quarter,” rather than the folk of “Going to California” or “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp.” Crunchy guitars, dominating drums and vocals with just the right amount of reverb for that “haunted” effect, add lyrics mentioning Babylon and how can the Zeppelin comparisons not be made?
“Sons & Daughters” completes the album with a hopeful song of war’s ending and the promises of a better life to come. This tune is a surprisingly effective close to The Crane Wife and features the rest of the band providing textured backing vocals behind Meloy’s lead. You’ll find yourself humming this tune hours after you listened to the album. What more can you ask for from the encore track?

You’ll certainly find The Decemberists expanding their musical horizons and experimenting with new styles throughout The Crane Wife. But give this album a few listens. It is certainly a new path, and the most unique offering by The Decemberists to date. Give it a try, you will not be disappointed.

Track Listing

  1. The Crane Wife 3
  2. The Island: Come And See–The Landlord’s Daughter–You’ Not Feel The Drowning
  3. Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)
  4. O Valencia!
  5. The Perfect Crime No.2
  6. When The War Came
  7. Shankill Butchers
  8. Summersong
  9. The Crane Wife 1 & 2
  10. Sons & Daughters