The Decemberists | The Crane Wife (Capitol)

It may be a challenging listen, and—as the first Decemberists album on Capitol Records—rather ambitious in this day of downloaded singles from iTunes.


cd_decemberistsListening to the Decemberists' new album The Crane Wife, one is struck by two things: the interesting tenor of lead singer Colin Meloy's vocals, and the juxtaposition of lyrics and music. While it may seem obvious to compare and contrast the music and words, here we have a different beast. Interestingly, the entire album sounds as if it could be the soundtrack to the next Zach Braff film. Not to say that that's a bad thing, but is has that certain off-kilter feeling that it maintains throughout the hour run time of the CD, and after listening to it, I was left with a feeling of, "Yeah….it was pretty cool. Odd, but cool."

What sets this apart from a lot of new music is that fact that it is a concept album, something you don't see much of these days. The CD is largely a musical interpretation of an old Japanese tragedy revolving around a man who finds a wounded crane in the woods and nurses it back to health, only to see the bird fly off and disappear. Shortly after, a woman shows up at his door and becomes his wife. In order to make a living, she convinces her husband to sell a special cloth that she weaves, under the condition that he not enter the room whilst she makes it. Finally noticing her deteriorating health—and simply because of his overwhelming curiosity—he peeks in the room, and sees that his wife is actually the crane, pulling out her own feathers and weaving them into the fabric. She sees him peering in at her, and she promptly flies off, never to return. In the end, the man learns a lesson of humility and shame, realizing that he was forcing her to weave for his profit at the expense of her health.

Upon realizing the context of the story, which is a major portion of the disc, the listener realizes that the music itself is a fitting component to the lyrics. The tunes are very evocative of stories passed down from generation to generation. So while even though there is that pop sensibility, we're finding instruments (glockenspiel, bouzouki, banjo, Hammond organs, cellos, and even a Moog) used on this CD that lend themselves to the storytelling concept.

Adding another layer to the Crane Wife story is the fact that the Decemberists do a Tarantino number on the listener. The first track is actually the third and final installment of the story, which is then followed by another epic tale, The Island—unrelated to the Crane Wife story line, but just as interesting. This 12-and-a-half-minute song has three parts that deals with a small town on an island, and how our hero (or adversary, depending on how you look at it) finds the land lord's daughter down by the water and rapes and kills her by drowning. Only at the end of the disc do we return to the Crane Wife tale; as stated previously, the end isn't very upbeat for the man who originally took in the wounded bird.

It's when we get to some of the darker numbers on the disc that the music begins to sound like it doesn't match up with what's being said. In fact, there's quite a bit of death on this album, with "Shankill Butchers" and "Summersong" also broaching the subject. At times the band—including Nate Query on bass, Jenny Conlee on the organs, pianos, and accordions, John Moon on drums and percussion, and Chris Funk on a variety of string instruments—seems in stark contrast to Meloy's lyrics. Even Meloy's somewhat cheerful voice seems incongruous to his words on certain tracks. But this is what adds to the oddness of it, while at the same time making it one of the most interesting CDs that I've listened to in recent memory. It may be a challenging listen, and—as the first Decemberists album on Capitol Records—rather ambitious in this day of downloaded singles from iTunes.

The Decemberists should be commended for their attempt to get back to storytelling and for attempting to bring the ADD generation with them. Whether or not it works remains to be seen but, if nothing else, those of us who truly appreciate music—real music—will find this to be an essential addition to the album collection.

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