(Review of The Crane Wife, by the Decemberists)
There comes a time when we all have to ask ourselves: how do we feel about songs about chimney sweeps? For plenty of people, that’s further than they’re willing to go – once a rock band brings up the chimney sweeps, or sailors, or Victorian street-urchins, they’re getting off the bus. It’s hard to blame them. If you’re a fan of the Decemberists, however, that’s where the trip begins. Over four albums or so now, Colin Meloy et al have carved out a distinctive niche – perfectly crafted, evocative little folk-rock ditties incorporating an absurdly elevated vocabulary, loads of period detail, and a healthy dose of pitch-black humor, all delivered in Meloy’s distinctive adenoidal croon.
The new album, The Crane Wife, will not surprise anybody who’s been paying attention. Sure, it’s got not one but two multi-part folk-prog epics: the title story, which is apparently based on some Japanese folktale, and nautical murder-ballad “The Island.” But this is a band that had epic ambitions from the beginning – the bleak, disturbing “Odalisque,” from 2001’s Castaways & Cutouts clearly pointed out that they had no intentions of being some sort of retro-joke act. The problem is that they’ve already taken this sort of thing as far as it could possibly go with their 18-minute Celtic-themed song-cycle The Tain. I like this new album, and I like “The Island,” but when I listen to “The Island,” what I mainly think is: boy, this makes me want to listen to The Tain. The Tain kicks ass! ("The Tain, Part 2" kicks so much ass that it is literally painful to sit down afterwards. It’s like Morrissey showed up to sing Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”)
But the first part of “The Island” is mighty fine, despite wearing its progginess on its sleeve. Lots of organ and accordion and that sort of thing. (Rachel’s brother heard about two minutes of it and said “Jethro Tull!”) Return readers take note: it does give a nod to The Tempest – Sycorax gets a shout-out. And if you didn’t like rock bands singing things like “curlews carve their arabesques,” you would never have even considered touching this record. Parts two and three, well, they’re okay. A little cutesey, perhaps – is there really ever any reason to say that you were “a-ramble down by the water?”
What really matters to me are not the epics, but the regular tunes – I love The Tain, but for me this is the band of “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect,” “Song for Myla Goldberg,” and “On the Bus Mall” – songs that essentially couldn’t be improved upon. And the tunes are there on The Crane Wife. Do they deliver? Well, yes, mostly. We’ve got a lovely Civil War death-duet, “Yankee Bayonet” – if you’re going to do a damned Civil War duet, it better be lovely, and I think they pull it off. We’ve got a West-Side-Story-type teen death ballad, “O, Valencia!” which is pretty fun. I love exclamation points in titles, and I love the poetic “O” – I’ll forgive a lot if you give me those things. “O, Valencia!” doesn’t quite do it, though – the chorus is big, but not big enough, and the subject matter is just so so tired that I don’t know how Meloy could let himself write it. I can see how it would probably be pretty majestic if you played it live; it really wants to rock. On the record it’s not quite there, but I’ll still take it over most pop songs. (Meloy said in an interview that the main guitar figure was supposed to sound like R.E.M.’s “Seven Chinese Brothers.” He went on to say, a little too proudly, that he’d asked Peter Buck’s permission to use it – presumably when they both were working on Scott McCaughey’s last Minus 5 album. Two things: Meloy’s vocal turn on that record, “Cemetery Row,” is by far the best thing on it and also as good as most any Decemberists song. And also, “O Valencia” makes me want to listen to Reckoning.)
And hey, we’ve got “Summersong.” I can’t complain about that one. One review I read called this song “insufferable,” but nobody who would think that has any business reviewing a Decemberists album. Is it precious? Oh my, yes! (“My girl / linen and curls / lips parting like a flag all unfurled?”) But that couldn’t be any less relevant – it’s a melody you can’t really argue with, unless maybe you think it reminds you of Oasis. If that’s the case, then please just try to forget everything you know about Oasis and remember why “Wonderwall” was a hit.
What else? There’s “Shankill Butchers,” an attempt at a creepy, Tim Burton-ish childrens’ song in the spirit of Castaways' hilariously indefensible “A Cautionary Song.” But that sort of thing is only slightly funny once. There are some admirable attempts at expanding the pallet – “The Perfect Crime #2” is an enormously fun, cartoonish little gangster tale, complete with an invocation of the Muse. I couldn’t help but think of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, and of course it’s by far the funkiest thing this band has ever done by default. It’s a shame the chorus doesn’t deliver, or it would be a highlight. “When the War Came” is puzzling, but admirable; it seems to be an attempt at oblique political commentary in the vein of Picaresque’s much-more-sprightly “Sixteen Military Wives,” but it’s darker and thornier. One review called it “polite hard rock,” which I thought was a terribly backhanded compliment – in my opinion, when a band that sings about vengeful mariners and barrow boys decides to get heavy, then, well, it’s just that much heavier. “When the War Came” is pretty damned solid, I just don’t know what it’s saying, exactly. Why are parts of it in Latin? And how does this new “war is bad” message square with the “war is totally gay” message of Her Majesty The Decemberists’ “The Soldiering Life?”
The final verdict might depend on how you feel about the title song, or songs. “The Crane Wife 1 & 2” is long and slow, and if you can’t get into it than you may ultimately decide this album was a waste of time. But on its own terms, it manages to be graceful and affecting in spite of itself. “The Crane Wife 3” was chosen to start the album, out of sequence, and it’s a decision that makes a certain perfect sense, finally. It’s got the right mix of effortless wordplay (“under the boughs unbowed,” a line that only Colin Meloy could start a record with) and aching regret in the soaring chorus (“I will hang my head low.”)
Really, though, we’re all still waiting for the next step. Like their close associates and fellow Portlandites, Death Cab For Cutie, the Decemberists have won a loyal following and made the jump to a major label. They’ve got a dozen or so tunes, from “Shiny” to “Red Right Ankle” to “Summersong,” that anybody would be proud to have written. But at some point we’ll have to see whether they’re going to be remembered for more than singing about chimney sweeps.