I have to declare that The Decemberists are probably my favourite band at the moment. I heard the first track of their previous album and was hooked; was compelled to go out and buy all their back catalogue immediately; and although I wrecked my knee during the audience participation part of their London gig last year, it was still the most fun I had at a gig in 2006. So impartiality may be a little hard for me to achieve on this one.
What Decemberist fans need to know about The Crane Wife:
Number of round songs: 1
Number of sea shanties: 0
Number of songs narrated by ghosts: 2
Number of songs about death: all but one
Words you rarely find in anyone else’s lyrics: dirigible; fontanel; solanum; arabesques; cormorants; sea-swaled; parallax.
The rest of you may need a little persuading. I can very well see that what I find challenging in the music and lyrics you may find cutesy or pretentious. And while I find lead singer Colin Meloy’s voice plaintive and adaptable, I can also see that to some it is irritating. All I would say is, if you don’t know The Decemberists, and if you like people who do interesting things with language like Morrissey, Talking Heads, Tom Waits or even Rufus Wainwright then give the a try.
The Crane Wife is clearly the right place to start, their best album to date, a tour de force of interwoven songs stemming from Meloy’s fascination with a tragic Japanese legend about a crane that turns into a woman, makes her husband rich by plucking her own feathers and using them to weave silk, but then is driven away by his greed.
Meloy’s delightful use of language and surprising rhyme schemes are augmented by strong production courtesy of Tucker Martine and Christopher Walla.
This new musical richness is coupled with a tightening up of the musical range. In the past sea shanties have sat next to flamenco tunes, which is very entertaining but not necessarily terribly coherent. For The Crane Wife this tendency has been reigned in; the fact that the album includes two groupings of songs, The Crane Wife Parts 1-3, and The Island, again in three sections, also increases the sense of coherence.
So thought out is The Crane Wife that the album opens with The Crane Wife 3, because musically and thematically its plaintive lines summarise the whole album’s focus, even though it develops out of songs that will come later.
The Decemberists’ music creates a landscape filled with magical outsider characters – pirates and rent boys, sailors and explorers, murderers and whores. Usually classed as Americana for wont of a more suitable category, here they display their folk roots very strongly (particularly on songs like the Civil War duet Yankee Bayonet) along with the more brutal influence of ’80s electronica (When The War Came and The Perfect Crime #2) and some wild passages influenced by groups like ELO and Jethro Tull, whose prog-folk bombast particularly fits their fascination with Victoriana and English street singers. This is particularly evident during the second part of The Island, The Landlord’s Daughter, which has truly exuberant keyboards.
A lot of earlier Decemberists material is about linear storytelling albeit often from an unusual point of view (a dead baby, a rapist about to commit suicide). Here Meloy steps back and allows the force of words and music combined to communicate moods and ideas, rather than spelling things out.
You don’t need to know the back story of When The Wars Came (a song about how the botanical community of Leningrad protected the world’s greatest collection of grains and seeds while starving to death) to get an emotional feel for what the song is about. It just makes you feel pleasantly smug if you do.
This universality of appeal while still retaining a pleasing depth is what lifts The Crane Wife above the rest of the band’s output to date. Already gathering awards in the US where it was released last autumn, hopefully it will do the same here.