The Decemberists are one of those bands that consistently, unfailingly, only ever sound like themselves. There really aren’t others to compare their sound to because no one else is doing that.Their 2006 album The Crane Wife is the perfect example of how they rode that idiosyncratic roller coaster to fame. Picaresque before it is twee, and The Hazards Of Love after it is overly complicated and proggily bombastic, but The Crane Wife is a moment caught on vinyl, a perfect little moment capturing a band doing what it does best.
The title of The Crane Wife apparently stems from a second-hand picture book that frontman Colin Meloy discovered in a shop in Seattle; it tells the story of a crane-woman who marries a mortal man, who mistreats her until she transforms back into a bird and leaves him. (Shades of The Secret Of Roan Inish, if anyone remembers that film.) Two tragic songs about the couple – in reverse order, natch – bookend the album. The first one, “The Crane Wife 3,” is not only gorgeous, but so simple I learned to play it in an afternoon.
In between these sad songs – which are full of pathos and regret – we have a whole host of gorgeous little proggy-pop gems. “The Perfect Crime #2” is essentially “The Ladykillers” set to music, with an infectious bass line and toe-tapping beats on the hi-hat. “O Valencia!”, which as far as I can tell is a gay retelling of Romeo and Juliet, was notable for the way its music video was shot – the band filmed themselves in front of a green screen and had fans send in their own backgrounds. “The Island” is a twelve-minute, three-part epic based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, told from the perspective of the much-maligned Caliban. And about two-thirds of the way through, “Summersong” strikes up its tootly, squeezebox intro, and no one listening to it can be sad again for at least half an hour.
The Crane Wife is marked, as all Decemberists albums are, by Colin Meloy’s absolute love affair with the English language. Seriously, it’s not a real Decemberists song unless you have to consult the OED four times; I used to have my students listen to Castaways and Cutouts instead of doing real vocab lessons. This album, however, somehow gets the balance exactly right; sometimes it falls over too far one way or the other, and you end up with stuff like The King Is Dead (their most recent effort, and a clear effort to dumb it down for the mainstream). The Crane Wife is just one of those perfect albums, where a band manages to say everything they ever wanted to say. No more, no less.
Lastly: I was lucky enough to see the Decemberists’ tour in support of this album, in November 2006, and I can safely say I have never seen anyone have so much fun doing their job. There was a dance contest. There was a shouting contest. And, right at the end, there was a re-enactment of “The Charge Of The Light Brigade,” involving most of the band and several audience members. For a review of that show, go here; they also have provided this photo:
Six years later, I’ve been to better or more “important” shows, but I’ve never been to one I enjoyed so much.