By Brian Gearing
Just as science has the elemental "chicken and egg" question, the relatively more academic school of music criticism has its own, equally confounding, fundamental question: What came first — the major label contract or the accessibility? The Decemberists' third full-length and first for Capitol Records, The Crane Wife, raises just such a question. Front man Colin Meloy's voice is as distinctive as anyone in popular music, so the initial label shock is mild at worst. This is still, without a doubt, a Decemberists record, but The Crane Wife's heavy, plodding drum beats and occasionally proggish composition set it apart from the band's previous output (even the pseudo-rock opera, The Tain.) And one can't help but speculate that Meloy & Co. have chosen a suspiciously opportune time to become a rock band.
Sell-out accusations will mostly turn out to be unfounded, however. Meloy's signature narrative lyrics, playful turns of phrase, and melodic melodrama still dominate the bulk of the material, though this book of tales tends more toward scenery and mood than exposition. While unfinished until the record's end, the opening "The Crane Wife 3" hints at the shame and regret of the album's central story, and "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)" and "O Valencia!" both highlight the singer's penchant for tragic, historical melodrama, though their references to stones on a window, family feuds, and Civil War widows contrast with the album's more modern references. The creepy bedtime yarn of "The Shankill Butchers" shows that the Decemberists haven't lost touch with their nostalgic tendencies, and even the updated rock sounds of the rest of the album hold on to a touch of the band's antique inclinations.
Along with the Crane Wife trilogy, "The Island" showcases new avenues for the drama club collective. "Come and See" is the triptych's first chapter and opens with a stomping rock beat and big keyboard sound rather than the typical acoustic barbershop shuffle. While the lyrical themes of murder and lost innocence are familiar, the mood is darker and more menacing as the drums stomp out the opening measures of a modernized epic that rivals the scope of Picaresque's "The Mariner's Revenge Song." If not for its length, "The Island" might serve as the perfect radio single with the huge, rocking cadences of "Come and See," Styxian keyboard riffs of "The Landlord's Daughter" and soft, gentle guitar of "You'll Not Feel the Drowning." But as it is, it still stands as the album's most intricate tragedy and shows that these vaudevillian troubadours can build walls of sound as high and thick as any noise-rockers around.
"When the War Came" has a similar weight that suits its subject, but the album's most conspicuous reference to our nation's current quagmire doesn't reference war at all, but rather a similarly groundbreaking band's signature war song. "The Perfect Crime 2" steals the Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" groove and lays a loose organized crime narrative atop it, even throwing in a guitar solo and a break that superimposes David Byrne's Stop Making Sense running in place, proving that Meloy and his cohorts don't hold the prejudices that their past work might suggest. Like all their ground-breaking predecessors, The Decemberists are growing and maturing, unwilling to stagnate in their Depression-era vaudevillian past. If they happen to get a little success out of that, one can't hold it against them, and The Crane Wife might just open a few rock fans' ears to one of the most unique bands of this decade.
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