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Death Do Us Part

 

The Decemberists: The Crane Wife

Capitol, 2006

Rating: 4.6

 

Posted: October 2, 2006

By Peter Landwehr

Let’s not beat around the bush. The Crane Wife is the Decemberists' best album. This statement could be prefaced with descriptions of how this niche indie-rock band with a penchant for storytelling mushroomed its fan base over three albums and two EPs, only to be picked up by a major label, and is now poised to release an album that will deliver their sound to an even wider audience, but that's beside the point. The Crane Wife is an album that nicely fits into the Decemberists' universe and has roots in earlier works, but sounds -- and hangs together -- better than any of them.

The Crane Wife is anchored by its ends; the pre-release hype has taken pains to note that the disc is book-ended by two three-part songs. "The Crane Wife" opens and closes the album (the brief Part 3 at the beginning and Parts 1 and 2 at the end), while epic-length second track “The Island” is comprised of three distinct and naturally flowing units, transitioning from Led Zeppelin-esque blues rock to prog organ solos to a mournful combination of strings, piano, and guitar. And while both parts of "The Crane Wife" are essentially cathartic builds from Colin Meloy singing along with his guitar to the entire band playing at full tilt, they create a unified intro/outro that bolsters the entire work.

Though Crane Wife contains some of the strongest music of the band’s career, the album suffers from a weak middle section: the ’70s funk of "The Perfect Crime #2" drags and the martial beats and anti-war sentiments of "When The War Came" proves a lesser retread of Picaresque standout "16 Military Wives." Despite the central nadir, there is a wealth of everything one loves about the Decemberists. There's the sparse acoustic strum and organ of "Shankill Butchers," the exuberant pop rock of "O Valencia!" and the laid-back melancholy (featuring Jenny Conlee's emotive accordion) of "Summersong." There are wordless choruses, musings on death, and John Moen's dependable drumming. Providing a laundry list of features is the worst way to do the band homage, however. The album's sonic palette draws less from Picaresque than Her Majesty, aided by Chris Walla's unifying production. But while other Decemberists albums have offered florid lyrics and sonic connectedness, they've never exhibited the same consistency of emotion and depth of character revealed here.

Meloy has always had a "do more with more" attitude toward lyrics, piling on details to create Edward Gorey-like Victorian fantasies. And while Picaresque hinted at a common theme with its references to drowning, lovers, and the ocean, The Crane Wife actually manages to interweave every moment; there is no single, overarching statement, but songs cross-reference each other in a contextually assertive manner. On the title track, Meloy describes how a husband loses the enchanted crane he married because of his greed (Part 3 ending with his sadness at the loss, Parts 1 and 2, surprisingly, with an understanding of his guilt). "The Island" documents a man who kidnaps a woman for her body; "The Perfect Crime #2" does the same, while "Summersong," "O Valencia!" and "Yankee Bayonet" all describe lovers parted through death.

In short, the loss of love and the abuse that desire can cause run rampant throughout. Two of the songs are obvious derivations of older stories, while "The Perfect Crime #2" opens with the lyric "Sing muse of the passion of the pistol" to nicely tie it to Greek drama. And jammed into the middle of this is the description of societal devastation in "When the War Came." Meanwhile, just as "The Crane Wife 1 and 2" ends with the narrator's realization of the pain he's caused his wife ("There is blood in the thread and it rakes my heart"), the album is closed with a kiss of societal salvation on "Sons and Daughters," fading out with the repeated refrain "hear all the bombs, they fade away."

This isn't a rock opera with an obvious plot, but if it was previously possible to imagine Meloy's heroes scattered across the same fictional world, The Crane Wife guides you to them. There is a sense that each event occurs in the space of a few moments -- and possibly even backwards -- starting and ending with the Crane Wife's husband, and it is because of this sense of artful planning that The Cane Wife triumphs.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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