Capitol or no, the Decemberists were headed for a change. Picaresque, the band’s 2004 Kill Rock Stars release, was bombastically dramatic, showcasing a band intimately attuned to its own quirky strengths. But alas, sea shanties about chimbley sweeps and barrow boys were only gonna work for so long. The initial uniqueness of the antiquated, maritime imagery had faded, and that long-ass song about the guy trapped in the whale pretty much closed the deal. The addition of a small brass and strings section stepped up the energy, but at the same time, pushed the band’s sound to its dynamic threshold. So while nobody would argue that Picaresque wasn’t a flat-out success, it presented the band with a challenge: stop writing songs about 19th century British gay prostitutes hanging out at the Bus Mall.
So here comes The Crane Wife, the Decemberists’ fourth album and their first one for the fat cats at Capitol. Talk about pressure. Jumping to the big leagues meant shedding most of the indie cred they had fought for; forget about the month-long barrage of acclaim that welcomed Picaresque. Even though they needed new direction, there was a giant ticking clock reminding them it was time to make hits. And with the band’s first single, “Oh Valencia!”, you get the feeling they might be alright. Pounding forward with a simple and catchy guitar riff, the song tells the story of some chick who dies in some guy’s arms. While it’s irritating that the sad lyrical content of the song is so brazenly set atop the happy-go-lucky music, it does its job as a single. I heard it, it got stuck in my head, and I wanted to hear what the rest of the songs sounded like.
Though I expected songs like “Oh Valencia!” all over the place, I was confused and intrigued when I got songs like “The Island” instead. Harking back to the “Tain” days, “The Island” is really three songs jammed together into one. While I immediately appreciated the artistic integrity of the band, I came to realize that I didn’t like it very much. The song opens with a hyper-cheesy synth line that could be the theme song for some atrocious 80’s show about cops and drug dealers. Different? Oh yeah. Not good different though. The first song (of the song) is more standard Decemberists fare, featuring a frantic drumbeat that fits the ominous mood perfectly. The second song, however, is fascinatingly unsettling; the organ playing is reminiscent of the Doors, and Meloy’s end rhymes are particularly accented and annoying. The song ends sweetly, with a sad acoustic ballad, but I found myself wondering why all three songs had to be in one track.
The next song, “Yankee Bayonet”, pairs glasses-wearing-indie-crooner Meloy with fellow glasses-wearing-indie-crooner Laura Veirs. The result is ten kittens worth of cuteness. They singsong back and forth, and like “Oh Valencia!”, the darkness of the lyrics is betrayed by the uncompromising sweetness of the melody. This time, the sugar is heaped high; the joint ‘ahhhh ahhh ahhhs” are just too much to bear. A slightly minor chorus can’t save the song from the honey glazed blandness.
“The Perfect Crime #2” finds the Decemberists blending their new funk sounds with some of Meloy’s better songwriting. Lines like “It was a ticker-tape parade when the plastique on the safe was blown away” do a fine job of blasting you back to whatever time period this is supposed to be, while Nate Query’s funky bass lines blast you back too, although only a couple decades or so. For some reason this works. The chorus, which consists of Meloy repeating the word “perfect” forever is quite clever; when he rattles it off thirty-two times at the end you wonder if it’s some kind of inside joke. Like, ‘I wonder how many times Capitol will let me repeat the same word?’ Or maybe they figured it worked for Clap Your Hands on “Child Star”, so why not?
While most of the stuff on Crane Wife exists between the pleasant sounds of the past and the new, mostly palpable throwback sounds, “When the War Came” is the album’s most startling disaster. A no nonsense electric guitar riff kicks things off, and from there, the song marches on in dull melodrama till the end, when the same heavy chord gets hit a buttload of times. Worst of all is Meloy’s verse phrasing, stolen directly from Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”. As much as they go for that classic rock seriousness, it’s tough to buy the Decemberists this way…I think they’re more comfortable and more successful when they stick to their guns. For example, although Picaresque was a grandiose, dramatic album, they still found room to interject some humor, gay and otherwise. “The Sporting Life” works great, not because it fits any themes of the record, but because it rests soundly on the Decemberists’ strongest abilities. The Crane Wife may be more lyrically unified than anything previous, but let’s face it: who cares about lyrics anyways? I read the damn booklet two or three times, and I still can’t make sense out of the Crane Wife story. If they wanted to slip a self-effacing humorous anecdote in there I, for one, wouldn’t have minded.
When all is said and done, The Crane Wife shows us all that the Decemberists are going to be around for awhile. The tightness of the band is obvious; it’s as if, for the first time, Meloy steps all the way to the back and lets his band have at it. And even if it doesn’t tickle my ears every moment, it’s good to hear a band growing together. Moogs and Hammonds aside, Meloy continues to flex his songwriter muscles. “Shankill Butchers”, the barest song on the record, tells a neat little story, while keeping the mood of the music very much entwined with the narrative. On “The Crane Wife 3” and “Sons and Daughters”, the first and last tracks respectively, a small bit of melody is carried out with beautiful starkness. Though the songs are un-Decemberists-like in their simplicity, they are ultra-infectious on the strength of Meloy’s melodic understanding. And therein lies the allure of the Decemberists’ future work: Meloy penning crazy-ass stories with big words and huge melodies, and the band growing ever tighter, adding and subtracting new instruments. Though nothing like Picaresque, The Crane Wife is a different beast, and ultimately, a pleasant and encouraging one.