The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
Reviewed by Andreas on 9th October 2006
There is a moment of pure 1970s flared-trousers-arena-prog-rock as "The Island, Come and See, The Landlord's Daughter, You'll not feel the drowning" passes the eight minute mark. Electric organs pipe up as they descend on the by now not so unsuspecting audience. You can almost see the hairy and beardy rock fans of 1974 "totally dig it, man". Probably the ultimate prog organ solo. The song is nearly 13 minutes long, and that's only the second song on The Decemberists' fourth album, "The Crane Wife". Wow.
For those that have tasted The Decemberists' sweet wine earlier, you know the deal already. You know the tales vocalist and songwriter Colin Meloy tell through his songs. "The Crane Wife" is no exception, the title borrowed from an old Japanese folk tale. In this rather ancient story, a man one day finds a wounded crane on his doorstep. He nurses it back to health, and one day it flies off. Later, a woman appears at his house, and they eventually fall in love and get married. As it happens, they are very poor, so the wife says she'll weave silk for them to sell, but only on the condition her husband never peak into the weaving room. He eventually gets greedy, makes her weave and weave, and inevitably peeks into the weaving room. There he sees a crane plucking feathers off its body and put them to the weave. The bird notices him, and flies off, never to be seen again. This story is retold through the song "The Crane Wife 1 & 2" and album opener "The Crane Wife 3". The former, one of the album's closing numbers, is one of the truly gorgeous musical moments to be found on the record. Ticking in at close to 12 minutes, it features a vocal melody so good it gives you a chill. Mmm, tasty.
Now, this is where the Decemberists of old end. There are no more stories about mariners, trapeze artists, youths forced to live out their father's athletic aspirations or anything. On "The Crane Wife", The Decemberists get dark and murderous. On the aforementioned "The island..." a story of abduction and abuse, "O Valencia!"details a love affair in the midst of mafia warfare put to oddly upbeat music and "Yankee Bayonet (I will be home)" is the closest thing to an "old" Decemberists song with its story of a soldier dying in the American civil war. The album's most harrowing moments come in the form of "The Shankill Butchers", a song about the violent group of Irish Protestant who kidnapped, tortured and killed an expected 30 Catholics in the 1970s. Lyrics arranged akin to a children's nightmarish bedtime story, it is downright frightening talking of how these killers used to be "such sweet little boys".
As you've no doubt caught up on by now, The Decemberists' fourth album is a morose affair, much more so than their previous efforts (come on, songs about actors and circus artists?). This is also reflected in the musical composition. The accordions and bouncy rythms have been toned down. There are more morose moods present in the music than before, and it is executed quite magnificently with a real sense of drama in the air. Well, drama and prog-rock bridges and songs that come in three "suites" that are actually seperate songs combined to create one.
Is it any good then? "The Crane Wife" is a good album, but is less instant than some of their previous releases like "Picaresque" and "Her Majesty's The Decemberists". It requires several spins before it sticks in your head. The length of a few tracks also drags down a bit; getting to the good part can be an exercise in patience. However, whilst the meandering progisms can last for what seems forever, songs like "Oh, Valencia!" and "Yankee Bayonet" make up for it. If you've enjoyed The Decemberists before, you will enjoy them again. If you're new to the band, their back catalogue comes highly recommended. "The Crane Wife" isn't the best place to start.
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