If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m kind of a sucker for the Decemberists. I rarely buy music anymore — money’s a bit tight while my wife is in school — but I still ordered The Crane Wife the day it was released. Any band that produces a video centered around a prep-school model UN (and spoofing so many different genres at once it will make your head spin) and could give us “The Mariner’s Revenge” deserves a great deal of academic-geek loyalty.
I posted recently that my opinion of The Crane Wife has gotten better with repeated listening, but I’m still not entirely sold. The three-part title track is beautiful and evocative; despite what some critics say, the placement of “The Crane Wife, Part 3” at the start of the album and “The Crane Wife, Parts 1 & 2” as the penultimate track makes perfect thematic sense.
But I thought Josh Love’s review pretty much nailed the problem with the new album:
And yet, these upgrades, impressive as they are, essentially are the equivalent of Kevin Smith deciding to throw all his efforts into special effects and costume design. As it is for Smith, the main draw with the Decemberists is the talking, and the talking on The Crane Wife often fails to meet the band’s infamously lofty standards.
Lazily derided for spinning the same silly and perversely arcane seafaring yarns throughout his career, Colin Meloy actually excels most at rendering tragic character sketches, imbuing wasted, shattered lives with grace and feeling no matter how insignificant or seedy they may on the surface appear to be. Think “Eli, the Barrow Boy,” “On the Bus Mall,” and “We Both Go Down Together.” Or “Billy Liar,” “Red Right Ankle,” and “The Chimbley Sweep.” The subjects may superficially seem static and unspectacular, but Meloy grants them a rich inner life and drapes their mundane tales in something heroic and sublime.
The Crane Wife, however, reveals a new and discouraging tendency towards boilerplate stories and lyrics that fail to penetrate. “Yankee Bayonet” features a lovely bridge and is ostensibly tragic, but its narrative, portraying lovers forever parted by the Civil War, is nonetheless unremarkable. Its resolution, with the fallen solider vowing to “come on the breath of the wind,” feels overly sentimental and pat, especially for a songwriter so comfortable with unhappy endings. Similarly, “O Valencia!” and “The Perfect Crime 2,” which treat star-crossed lovers and heists, respectively, offer nothing in the way of interior monologue to give individual resonance to shopworn scenarios (though the latter boasts some nicely Steely Dan-worthy funk while the former actually includes a reference to the existence of cars, a shockingly out-of-place acknowledgment in the Decemberists’ world).
The album lacks, overall, the rich narrative world of their previous offerings. It’s still a storng album — better than a “B-“, for sure.