January 12, 2007

Decemberists Loosely Weave a Tale of Epic Proportions

"The Crane Wife," released in October 2006, is yet another chance for the Decemberists to create a folkloric, historical, tragic epic. Brilliant in places, “threadbare” in others, but encompassed by lyrical and instrumental beauty, this album takes on a sweeping scope and takes us on a ride “we’ll not” soon forget.

The album opens and closes with a literal retelling of the Japanese folktale of (you guessed it) The Crane Wife. In the story, a man finds a helpless, injured crane and nurses it to health. After releasing the crane, a woman appears at his doorstep, they fall in love, and marry. The couple is poor, but the wife offers to use her weaving talent as a way to support them on the condition that her husband will not peek into her room as she weaves. One day, however, greed consumes him and he peers into her room only to find that his wife is actually the crane weaving from her own feathers. The crane then flies away and the story ends in heartbreak. The entire album is not about the story per se, but the name and cover art lead us to believe that the story weaves the album together.

The first track, “The Crane Wife 3,” has a driving start and relaxed feel. The song sounds like a simple folktale combined with the remorse of a sulky britpop classic: “Each feather it fell from skin / Until thread bare and she grew thin / How were my eyes so blinded? / Each feather it fell from skin / And I will hang my head, hang my head low.” “The Crane Wife 1&2” is strictly a storytelling song that picks up as only a closer can, except that the track does not end the album. Instead, it transitions into the hopeful “Sons And Daughters,” in which the delightful “we’ll fill our mouths with cinnamon” distracts us from the tale's melancholy.

That last track also provides a bit of sweetness to complement the ruthless intensity of songs such as the monumental multi-part “The Island,” in which Meloy’s voice first warbles with a jagged uncertainty but then picks up with energy and confidence. The listener feels dragged through a relentless story, with whimsical instrumentals such as the accordion conjuring up a scene of piracy and adventure, only to collapse tenderly into the gentle last segment. “You’ll Not Feel The Drowning,” so beautiful that the severity of the lyrics (“Go to sleep now, little ugly”) is masked by subtle strums. This song is just the beginning of reference upon reference to dueling, blood, and death - “O! Valencia” tells of rivalry between families over a lover, while “The Perfect Crime #2” and “Shankhill Butchers” depict gruesome scenes. Even the love songs cannot escape references to graves in connection with coming home.

A breath of life is infused by “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then),” a duet with Laura Veirs, and “Summersong.” Although referencing war and a love ending in death, they have a carefree vibe and homey, folk-like quality. This is shown in "Yankee Bayonet"'s “But you are in the ground with the voles and the weevils / All a'chew upon your bones so dry.” Here, Veirs’ voice carries a vibe of indifference to hint that the song is not to be taken with complete seriousness. “Summersong"'s echoing, energetic instrumentals make it a “fun” song about summer love, even though it ends tragically.

The weakness of the album is precisely its large scale, which is anything but neatly tied together. “Shankhill Butchers,” with its gorgeously chilling admonition, “Cause everybody knows / If you don't mind your mother's words / A wicked wind will blow / Your ribbons from your curls” reminds me of the Revolutionary War, while “The Perfect Crime #2” seems unnecessary. The line of the story disappears somewhere, but we don't know where or how, and our interest flags.

Although perhaps suffering from overload, The Crane Wife shows the Decemberists becoming more accessible in their songwriting. They don't feel the pressure to pack every line with literary or historical references but instead rely on sound effects, vocal fluctuations, and indelible imagery like “Summersong"'s “She's grand the bend of her hand / Digging deep into the sweep of the sand,” “Boats bobbing in the blue of the bay,” and “The dead sailors / Slowly slipping to sleep.” The band seems to be applying the formula that made “We Both Go Down Together” and “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” stand out on previous albums - a focus on the individual emotional dimensions of a story, lines straightforward and poetic at once, situations that everyone can relate to cast in a legendary mold.

These moments are what give the album more heart than previous projects. The heart is what stays with us and what best complements the haunting melodies. Overall - a success.

Score: 75/100

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