Counterbalance: The Decemberists – The Crane Wife

And I will hang my head low — as we build our homes aluminum and fill our mouths with cinnamon. By land, by sea, by dirigible, we turn our Counterbalance attention to a 2006 indie rock classic.
The Decemberists
The Crane Wife
Capitol / Rough Trade

Mendelsohn: The Decemberists have a unique gift, Klinger. They are able to take a myriad of disparate genres, thematic material, diverse ideas and turn it into a cohesive work of art. And I’m not talking a little genre-bending or obscure references. The group’s 2006 album The Crane Wife is chock-full of historical and literary references ranging, in no particular order, from a Japanese fairy tale, tales of death and love lost covering the last 300 years — including a trip to colonial times, the Civil War and a modern day forbidden love not unlike Romeo and Juliet. There are also a songs about an an Ulster loyalist group from the 1970s, the World War II siege of Leningrad, and another one detailing a well-planned heist of unnamed goods. All of this is splayed out over some combination for folk rock, prog rock, plain old rock rock and some sweet pop thrown in for good measure. The Crane Wife is also the band’s debut on a major label, marking a shift from being indie darlings with a penchant for folk ditties to major-label players pushing a very diverse set of influences into the mainstream.

And, if that wasn’t enough, The Crane Wife comes off as a cohesive set, loosely connected through lyrical material yet widely divergent from start to finish. Maybe the most impressive part of the entire affair is that this album comes off as meticulously put together but never plays down to the listener who might have no idea what the Colin Meloy, the lead singer and songwriter of the band, is referencing at any given moment. I hope you were paying attention, Klinger, there will be a quiz later.

Klinger: So not only do I need a lyric sheet, I also need the Cliffs Notes for the lyric sheet. And people act like jazz is hard work. I’ve listened to plenty of college rock in my day, but this is grad school rock: even more studying and much quieter parties.

Look, I have to be honest with you — The Crane Wife is an enjoyable listen overall, especially when they veer themselves away from their proggier tendencies. But there’s something in their approach that I just find too precious by half. I assume the Decemberists recorded this album wearing jodhpurs and pince nez glasses whilst striking louche poses in a Victorian drawing room and poring over maps of Scylla and Charybdis. Also I have the sense that most of these songs were written in a hot air balloon soaring high over Zagreb.

But at the same time, I will admit that there’s something affecting in their affectations. I think if I had a better handle on Meloy and Company’s own self-awareness, I’d be better equipped to get on board their phantasmagorical dirigible.

Mendelsohn: I like the fact that you answer all of the Decemberists’ obscure references with equally obscure references. My Google finger is getting tired, Klinger. But, I begrudgingly concede the point. I had a hard time getting into the Decemberists, for all of the reasons you mentioned above. I still can’t listen to their earlier records simply because I always feel completely underdressed. Needless to say, I get where you are coming from. But that is part of the reason why I choose The Crane Wife, it offers an interesting juxtaposition between the band the Decemberists were and the band they were yet to become. On the one hand, you have a band that likes big words, obscure literary references and funny instruments, on the other hand is a band that just likes to rock and speaks the universal language of pop music (even if it means affecting a fake British accent). The Decemberists were an indie rock group that managed to make the accordion and hurdy-gurdy sound cool enough to get picked up by a Capitol Records. No small feat if you ask me. I imagine that The Crane Wife had just enough hurdy gurdy to appease the long-time fans but not so much hurdy gurdy as to turn off new listeners. Worked for me anyway. I found the accordion and glockenspiel to be endearing while being drawn in by their prog rock proclivities.

And maybe a little learning is needed in rock and roll from time to time. Not every band can be the Stooges, AC/DC or the Ramones — nor should they be. Besides, The Crane Wife is a sinister album. Death and destruction lay around every corner, which might play into the whole Victorian fin de siècle mentality that bubbles up behind the Decemberists’ pop facade. I think there is a lot to like about this record — be it the extended prog suite of “The Island/Come & See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel The Drowning” or the dark folk of “Shankill Butchers” or the perfectly executed pop of “O Valencia!”

Klinger: You and your extended prog suites. But yes, there is a Ripper-era Whitechapel pall hanging over large swaths of this album, which is probably what makes closing track “Sons and Daughters” seem like such a beacon of golden hour light, even if the lyrics don’t make much sense. Unless they do — is this song actually about some obscure sect of the Communards who built houses out of aluminum and filled their mouths with cinnamon or something? I can’t tell anymore, and the lyrics are clearly a little sinister, so I guess it’s a juxtaposition of light and dark thing. It’s still a good song.

Mendelsohn: It’s a great song, if you like songs about surviving in a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland. The walls of aluminum are used to block radiation while cinnamon apparently works against free radicals and has been shown to ameliorate the ionizing radiation-induced cellular injury in rats. So according to Colin Meloy and this scientific study I just found, if you are trying to survive radiation poisoning, build your walls out of aluminum and fill your mouth with cinnamon, now. “Sons and Daughters,” like many of the songs on this album, is a very dark, dystopian view of the world inserted into mostly upbeat numbers. If you aren’t paying attention the album can be written off as goofy but there is a lyrical depth that works in great contrast to the light-hearted song craft. Expect for “When the War Came,” there is nothing happy about those five minutes of power-chorded strum und drang.

Klinger: Man, how much research do I have to do in order to enjoy this record? When I play records at the library, everybody shushes me. Anyway, I’ll also go on record as saying that there’s a somewhat surprising amount of musical diversity across The Crane Wife‘s 60ish minutes. Surprising to me, anyway, since I did enter into this album with a few preconceived notions about the band and its penchant for the twee. Just as the last Jethro Tulli-meets-Steely-Dan (or is it just me) strains of “The Island” fade away, up pops the lighthearted “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)”, with its sweet little chorus and the unmistakable, delightful warblings of guest vocalist Laura Viers. (Or does it only seem lighthearted? Wait a minute — oh m G*d! Voles and weevils are chewing on his bones! Their bodies are parted! The voles, Mendelsohn! I feel like they keep tricking me somehow.)

Mendelsohn: I think the diversity is the album’s greatest strength. Meloy and company spend those sixty minutes romping through a handful of musical styles, held together by the thematic material and tied off in a little bow by the band’s exceptional talent to slip seamlessly between genre. This might sound a little silly, but the beating heart of this record is folk music. The Crane Wife plays into that tradition of storytelling, often with dark results. In almost every instance, stripping these songs down to their bare essence will reveal a folk song. That points to a unique combination of interests that helped shaped this record, including the band’s interest in early 1960s English folk music and the wordy, moody work of Morrissey and the Smiths. Add a dash of indie rock and an accordion and you have a fun and interesting way to spend the hour.

Klinger: All right, fair enough. I can see why so many people are drawn to the Decemberists’ erudite pop music, even if I do often feel as boorish and ill-informed as a Yalie when I’m listening to them. There’s a lot to be said for trying to push lyrics away from the boy-meets-girl status quo. so I do cheerfully proffer nosegays for their efforts. Forgive my knee-jerk reactions here. The more I hear what’s going on throughout The Crane Wife, the more I appreciate it. I suppose it’s true — not all the gatherings need to be beer-fueled ragers. Sometimes a dinner party filled with illuminating conversation and fascinating storytelling in the parlor is a reward unto itself.