There’s something fundamentally perverse about the Decemberists. Who hears a rock song and thinks, “Aha! Clearly this is the best medium for my dark, verbose, quasi-historical pocket sagas”? The answer, of course, is Decemberists front man Colin Meloy, and how you feel about this attitude will probably dictate how much you like “The Crane Wife.”
Meloy’s approach to songwriting can seem, at times, like a parlor trick. In place of the confessional intimacy and emotional tug that pop music has trained us to expect, he presents snappy tunes paired with elaborate, emphatically fictional lyric fables. He’s the hyper-articulate ninth grader who performs an original one-act play instead of just delivering his book report like everyone else. As one of the kids watching from the back of the class, you’re left to feel simultaneously impressed and indignant. “Woah,” you think. “That’s not what he was supposed to do.” Meloy may push beyond pop’s typical parameters, but in doing so he often goes willfully against the grain of his chosen medium.
The important question is whether this tension between form and sensibility generates some sort of interesting complexity, or whether one simply undermines the other. When The Decemberists succeed, the result is all the more compelling for its apparent unlikelihood. But when they bomb, they bomb hard. “Picaresque,” their last album, was littered with gimmicky songs that were clever and little else — gypsy-carnival music competing for attention with baroque tales of princesses, cannibals and spies. Listening to the painfully nasal-voiced Meloy send words like “palanquin” and “anchorperson” rattling through his sinuses was something of an auditory low point. “The Crane Wife,” the Decemberists’ first album on Capitol, represents an overall improvement. Although the listener must still contend with some of the trademark Decemberist foibles, “The Crane Wife” is less self-consciously quirky and more emotionally resonant than its predecessor.
The album is remarkably consistent — in terms of quality, but not style. The only outright dud on “The Crane Wife” is “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then),” a Civil War love song with a weirdly jaunty tempo and chirpy duet vocals. Stylistically, the Decemberists remain eclectic: “The Island” evokes prog rock, “Shankhill Butchers” features a mournful guitar, and “The Perfect Crime #2” has a sneaky, twitchy disco vibe. The title tracks — “The Crane Wife 3” and “The Crane Wife 1 & 2,” in that order — are particularly intriguing. In the Japanese fable that they’re based on, Meloy has found material that satisfies his need for the exotic without seeming aggressively distant. The story passes gracefully through its three movements.
Perhaps the album’s greatest success is its final track, “Sons and Daughters,” a sparkly anthem of dawn and arrival. Even Meloy’s penchant for far-fetched rhymes finds good use here — “We’ll build our walls of aluminum! We’ll fill our mouths with cinnamon!” is its appealingly strange refrain. With a warm harmonica drone and an increasingly confident beat, the song is five minutes of heady build-up. A Decemberists album more in this vein would be a relief — original without being stylized, articulate without being obnoxious, smart without being emotionally dry. “Sons and Daughters” makes you want to stride boldly forth — where exactly is unclear, but with enthusiasm. One hopes that Meloy and company will do the same.