The Decemberists - The Crane Wife

Emily Tartanella 23/10/2006

Rating: 4/5

To paraphrase that centerpiece of mid-90s nihilism, SLC Punk: The Decemberists didn't sell out. They bought in.

For Colin Meloy and his motley band of misfits are currently in that most uncomfortable of positions, the same one that drove Ian and Kurt to breakdowns, suicide, and tawdry tabloid films - straddling the border of fame. While frontman and mastermind Colin Meloy has always seemed of sterner stuff, it's tough to imagine the man most comfortable citing Myla Goldberg and dressing up for Mock U.N. as the hard-living rock icon.

But after making numerous albums for indie labels Hush and Kill Rock Stars, the Decemberists announced that their fourth would be released on the decidedly mainstream Capitol Records. Then they announced it would be a concept album based on a Japanese folktake about a man who marries a crane. In other words, they kept us guessing.

Because nothing shocks the indie world more than a musician's desire for commercial success. Who hasn't heard the local record-store poster boy lamenting the downfall of Pavement or Green Day, or gaining a slightly manic twitch when their favorite local act mentions a label offer on their myspace. After all, the scoffs that awaited an electrified Dylan were steeped in a certain fear: the fear that the artist will outgrow the fans. When the R.E.M. switched to Warner Brothers, it was characteristic to feel that your favorite little secret had just been told to the whole wide world, and that the deep, personal connection you made might not be so personal after all.

And to a certain extent, that fear might be justified. The Decemberists aren't the same band they were on Castaways & Cutouts. Rather, they've become a tightly-honed machine, capable of both minute delicacy and monumental overtures. This doesn't sound like the same fey pop band that crafted giddy little hits like “July! July!” If anything, this troupe bears more resemblance to the epic songwriters behind 2002's “California One Youth and Beauty Brigade.” But where that nine-minute opus was, in reality, lighter than air, the 11 minute plus tracks “The Island” and “The Crane Wife: 1 & 2” are bombastic, stirring suites of a complex grandeur never expected from this band.

Ostensibly, The Crane Wife is the saga of the affection between a man and the strange woman who he discovers to be a crane in disguise, but the vast majority of the album is instead a meditation on the divisive qualities of war, and what it can do to love. In “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then),” a Cold Mountain-esque duet between Meloy and folkie Laura Veirs, war is the barrier between romance. “But oh, did you see all the dead of Manassas,” Meloy croons, “All the bellies and the bones and the bile?” In “When the War Came,” it unites the people under a terrible, violent flag, and the impulse to read these snippets as comments on the current American catastrophe is irrepressible. Not that Meloy is out hitting the campaign trail with a “Vote or Die” sign, but a line like “A trust put in the government / All their lies are heaven sent” rings with the dissatisfaction many are feeling.

Like war, the menace of death is deeply embedded in Meloy's lyrics- from the star-crossed lovers of the bouncy “O Valencia!” to the harpooned crane/woman on “The Crane Wife, Pts. 1 & 2,” and what's most impressive is the band's innate knack for melody; guitarist Chris Funk consistently takes the most dour of themes and makes them ebulliently morbid. Even while subdued numbers like the acoustic “Shankill Butchers” feel more like sketches than songs, the sheer quality of musicianship is enough to carry the album. Never afraid of a good pop chorus (even in the strangest of disguises), The Decemberists know that if you're following the path of prog, there has to be a pop payoff.

And perhaps that payoff arrives most exquisitely in the sing-a-long sweetness of “Sons & Daughters,” the album's closing track. Equal parts pilgrim saga and infectious coda, it marches to a gleeful peak, elevating serotonin ten times better than any drug of choice. Like a slightly less than hip camp counselor, Meloy brings a devil-may-care attitude towards his own nerdiness, but any album that sounds like a ferocious hodge-podge of Morrissey, Deep Purple, and an English major's thesis needs to avoid self-consciousness.

So is The Crane Wife “the Decemberists album for people who don't like Decemberists albums”? Does it reject their delicate sensibilities? Is Colin Meloy, at this moment, throwing a television out of a hotel window in a drunken stupor? Probably not- he'd miss a fascinating History Channel program, anyway. The Decemberists might not be the next Death Cab, but they're definitely no one's little secret anymore: they're a strong, defiant rock band with their own sound that's neither fey nor feral, just as they promised to be so many years ago. It seems that the Decemberists, those kings among runaways, have found a home all their own.