The Crane Wife
he Crane Wife is by far the most musically satisfying record the Decemberists have released to date. It’s their first effort since signing with major label Capitol, and whether the product of a bigger budget, or simply a result of the band’s evolving sonic sophistication, the album is fuller, deeper, and more melodically dynamic than anything in their back catalogue.
And yet, these upgrades, impressive as they are, essentially are the equivalent of Kevin Smith deciding to throw all his efforts into special effects and costume design. As it is for Smith, the main draw with the Decemberists is the talking, and the talking on The Crane Wife often fails to meet the band’s infamously lofty standards.
Lazily derided for spinning the same silly and perversely arcane seafaring yarns throughout his career, Colin Meloy actually excels most at rendering tragic character sketches, imbuing wasted, shattered lives with grace and feeling no matter how insignificant or seedy they may on the surface appear to be. Think “Eli, the Barrow Boy,” “On the Bus Mall,” and “We Both Go Down Together.” Or “Billy Liar,” “Red Right Ankle,” and “The Chimbley Sweep.” The subjects may superficially seem static and unspectacular, but Meloy grants them a rich inner life and drapes their mundane tales in something heroic and sublime.
The Crane Wife, however, reveals a new and discouraging tendency towards boilerplate stories and lyrics that fail to penetrate. “Yankee Bayonet” features a lovely bridge and is ostensibly tragic, but its narrative, portraying lovers forever parted by the Civil War, is nonetheless unremarkable. Its resolution, with the fallen solider vowing to “come on the breath of the wind,” feels overly sentimental and pat, especially for a songwriter so comfortable with unhappy endings. Similarly, “O Valencia!” and “The Perfect Crime 2,” which treat star-crossed lovers and heists, respectively, offer nothing in the way of interior monologue to give individual resonance to shopworn scenarios (though the latter boasts some nicely Steely Dan-worthy funk while the former actually includes a reference to the existence of cars, a shockingly out-of-place acknowledgment in the Decemberists’ world). Still, these are preferable to placeholders “Sons and Daughters” and “Summersong,” not to mention the tortuous suite “The Island,” which vaguely evokes Shakespeare’s The Tempest through twelve minutes of fractured imagery and bad Irish prog. And the less said of “When the War Came” the better, other than that it strips all the cleverness and caustic ridicule from “16 Military Wives” and leaves a strident, painfully lugubrious shell in its place.
But this isn’t a bad album either, not only because, as previously stated, it represents a sizable leap forward for the Decemberists musically, but because the three-act title epic (based on a famous Japanese folk tale) is lyrically the peer of any previous Meloy composition. Though obviously Meloy has canonical source material at his disposal here, the particular way in which he deploys it is still breathtaking, painting a scene where “all the stars were crashing round” in which the narrator devastatingly confesses that the pain of a discovery that “rakes at my heart.”
It’s one of only two efforts on the album where Meloy’s talent for elucidating ugliness and horror is brought fully to bear, the other being “Shankhill Butchers,” a macabre lullaby that warns children against the real-life murderers of Irish Catholics that syncs up nicely with Sufjan Stevens’ “John Wayne Gacy” (even down to the depiction of the killers as once being “sweet young boys”) but absolutely slays it for conjuring menace without moralizing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s probably the least musically developed track on the album. Tempting as it may be to assume that beefing up their sound would have automatically made the Decemberists markedly better, the truth is that these strides may have at least partially come at the expense of the things that always made the band so singularly compelling.