The Decemberists – The Crane Wife

Another dip back into the past, this time from April 2007!

I only started listening to the Decemberists a couple of months ago. I started with their first record, Castaways and Cutouts, I’ve started kinda working my way forward.

‘Cept I kinda skipped ahead a bit and picked up their latest record, The Crane Wife, last week.

Sometime between that first record and the latest one, the Decemberists discovered a couple of things: 1) an electric guitar, and 2) the work of Styx circa “Lady.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Their 1870s meets 1970s aesthetic actually works for the most part on this record. Thematically, it’s a loose song cycle based on a Japanese folk tale involving a man who takes a crane woman as his wife. The album includes two lengthy multipart songs: “The Crane Wife,” which is broken up into “Part 3” (which opens the album) and “Part 1 & 2” (which comes near the end of the record), and “The Island,” a track that sounds something like a prog rock epic about immigration, class struggle, dueling, and drowning. “The Island” features a section that nicks the warblely synth line from “Band on the Run,” with the twist that it’s performed by a string quartet. Part of “Come and See,” the first section of “The Island,” sound like something out of Emerson, Lake, & Palmer or post-Tommy Shaw Styx.

But lest you think it’s all epic-length story songs, fear not: the Decemberists can knock together a folky, poppy song in the 3-4 minute range with ease and poise. “Yankee Bayonet” is an effortless, sprightly tune about…well, a Civil War soldier and his lady love. “The Perfect Crime No. 2” races along breathlessly. “Shankill Butchers” is a creepy, old-fashioned “keep the kids in line” lullaby with a slow, stuttered rhythm. “Sons and Daughters” closes the record with a sweet, folky surge and a note of hope.

The album really holds together well as a whole, though “The Island” does drag after awhile and “The Crane Wife” could’ve been condensed to one part rather than three. But really, it’s a solid collection. The songs are strong and evidence a growth and a great sense of songcraft. It’s not for everyone–not everyone is gonna groove on subject matter mostly drawn from the 19th century–but for those that can dig into it, it’s a very rewarding listen.