When The Decemberists released their 2005 album Picaresque (a Treble favorite), and from that, their single “16 Military Wives,” it appeared that the Portland band was ready for their close-up. Not only one of the best songs on what may have been their best album to date, it was their most accessible song to date—soulful, danceable, and above all, catchy, yet still an incredibly clever track from a smart and immensely talented band. Capitol Records must have thought the same thing, eventually coming around to signing the band less than a year later. It was a little surprising to hear, particularly considering the absence of 19th century rogue’s tales on modern rock radio, but given that Colin Meloy’s storytelling is always backed with strong melodies and that Capitol has taken a few chances in the past (they did release Kid A), it’s not such a crazy idea.
So The Decemberists release their first album for Capitol, titled The Crane Wife after a Japanese folk tale, and one could argue that it was the album that they probably would have made if they were still on Kill Rock Stars. Meloy’s storytelling, this time delving into murder mystery, civil war, a West Side Story style love and death story, and of course the titular mythological song cycle. And that very song cycle is actually one of two songs more than 11 minutes in length, very prog-rock in nature, the other one being “The Island (Come and See, The Landlord’s Daughter, You’ll Not Feel the Drowning).” Of course, given that this is The Decemberists, even such monstrous and lengthy tracks are just as listenable and magnificent as their shorter songs, only much, much more grandiose.
The first track on the album is “The Crane Wife 3,” sequenced, for some reason, eight tracks earlier than parts 1 and 2, which, at track nine, spans across 12 minutes. “The Crane Wife 3” does sound like a natural choice for an opening track, however, beginning quietly with acoustic strums and Meloy’s familiar, friendly and projective vocals. As the band draws the listener in closer, the band explodes into a much bigger and epic song, though not nearly to lengths that “The Crane Wife 1 and 2” is. Essentially two songs in one, it begins as a folky jaunt, telling the tale of the Crane Wife, in which a man discovers his wife is, in fact, a crane. The first part climaxes as Meloy sings “she stood to fly away/my crane wife, my crane wife,” the song, itself, taking off toward the sky with soaring melodies. In part two, however, the song veers toward the somber, yet still absolutely gorgeous.
By contrast, “The Island” actually sounds more like prog, beginning with an organ groove, spacy guitar effects and such before the acoustic break in “Come and See,” erupting with baroque organ flourishes in the rape sequence of “The Landlord’s Daughter” and concluding with the orchestrated elegy of “You’ll Not Feel the Drowning.” Somehow, at only track two, this manages not to be all that awkward, pouring into “Yankee Bayonet,” in which Meloy duets with Northwest singer/songwriter Laura Veirs over an early REM-like melody. First single “O Valencia” follows, a catchy and jangly tune with its “Romeo and Juliet” like storyline, building up into a great chorus during which Meloy vows his revenge: “I swear by the stars, I’ll burn this whole city down.”
The middle of the album finds the band exploring new territory on “The Perfect Crime #2” and “When the War Came.” The former is the band’s funkiest song to date, some have compared it to Steely Dan, I say it’s far too cool for that. Regardless, the band takes a chance, and it most certainly works in their favor. Yet when opening with lines like “sing, muse, of the passion of the pistol,” Meloy’s lyricism is firmly in place, even if the instrumental approach is a bit different. The latter track is one of the band’s loudest, a grungy, chugging rocker laying forth the horrors of war. Of course, the band gets back on course toward the familiar with the spare, haunting “Shankill Butchers” and the decidedly more upbeat, yet melancholy, not to mention fantastic “Summersong.”
Being the fourth album The Decemberists have released in five years, The Crane Wife is nothing short of wonderful. They seem to be on some kind of streak here, even though the added factors of major labeldom and some newfound prog leanings, there is likely to be a little bit of division over this one. Some will have their doubts, and that’s fine. But for me, The Crane Wife merely reminded me of why I loved this band so much in the first place.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.