The Decemberists, as those who have heard their music know, make often beautiful, literate, and at times even epic period pieces of musical historical fiction, songs that transcend era while at the same time conjuring very specific feelings of chronological place. Their songs are the modern retellings of folk tales told by the quite possibly crazy but earnest old man down the road who so immerses himself in the tale without losing you that it just might not even be modern. And, if the general consensus is to be believed, they’re one of those rare bands that improve with every record. This is no small statement, considering the quality of Picaresque.
The general consensus is to be believed.
Their latest album, The Crane Wife, is purportedly a concept album about a Japanese folk tale. More accurately, it’s two very brief three-song concept centerpieces in one, backed by seven self-contained songs — this is important, because for the Decemberists, as for David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust, Regina Spektor and her grave-diggers (or, yes, even “Brenda’s Got a Baby”-era 2Pac), these are not just songs but legitimate stories — works of fiction, if you will. Yes, they keep this up even on their major-label debut.
All of which leaves fans wondering just what has changed with the move to Capitol Records. While the sound of this record is different from previous releases, it is only ever-so-subtly-so — and it just might be better. The guitars sound warmer and slightly softer, but they still manage to retain their finely-honed Decemberists edge while sounding even better than before. Colin Meloy’s ageless voice is entirely unchanged, as purely iron and sharp (not in pitch, but in feel — you’ll know it when you hear it) as ever before. But there’s a reason that none of this has changed.
It’s that, even through the costumes and the settings and the outmoded vocabulary, the Decemberists are first and foremost expert crafters of beautiful pop songs. Their guitars strum, their drums beat, and catchy, pretty melodies are made. Will the average listener be drawn to a song with the title “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)”? Admittedly, probably not. But upon hearing such a song, would the average listener care about such outside elements? Not after hearing the gorgeous tune and the wordless, light vocal riff, “ha, ha, ha, ha-ha ha”. The Decemberists keep one foot in nerd-indie cred and they plant it extraordinarily firmly, but their other foot has always been in universally appealing things like tune and musicality that Capitol really has no reason to change.
Which is not to say that The Crane Wife isn’t ambitious when it wants to be. Apart from the titular “The Crane Wife” song (out-of-)sequence that begins (with “The Crane Wife 3”) and almost-ends the record (with “The Crane Wife 1 & 2”), the album also features the single-track, three-song murder tale “The Island (Come and See — The Landlord’s Daughter — You’ll Not Feel the Drowning)”. “Come and See” is a jaunty and later almost droning introduction that breaks into the chaos of the frenetic “The Landlord’s Daughter”, but it’s the third of these, the darkly soft acoustic ballad “You’ll Not Feel the Drowning”, that leaves the greatest impact — it’s spare and moody and simply beautiful where the others threw themselves at the skies, and it floats on the disturbing imagery of Meloy’s lyrics — “Go to sleep now, little ugly / Go to sleep now, you little fool / Forty winking in the belfry / You’ll not feel the drowning”.
The Crane Wife is not an album of poetry set to music, then, so much as it as an album of music laced with poetry. Just as with previous records, it’s chance lines like those from “You’ll Not Feel the Drowning” that tend to stick in your head, oddly and inexplicably compelling images. “Each feather, it fell from skin / Till threadbare, she grew thin / Oh, were my eyes so blinded / Each feather, it fell from skin,” he sings with a smooth sadness on the absolutely gorgeous opener “The Crane Wife 3”, quite possibly one of the strongest tracks the Decemberists have put out to date. “We’ll fill our mouths with cinnamon,” goes the beautiful last track, “Sons and Daughters”, another definite highlight.
Which is not to call The Crane Wife a perfect album — it is only a great one. It is, like any Decemberists album (and most albums in general), a collection of hits and misses, but the misses (“The Perfect Crime 2”, “Summersong”) are just so much rarer and the hits so impossibly solid here that the moments of mere adequacy are easily forgotten. The Crane Wife is a record of steely voices and beautiful sounds and striking images, of poetry in more senses than one.