The Decemberists – Crane Wife

The Decemberists – Crane Wife
Capitol – 4 ½ Stars (Sorry, Noah)

Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a luxury liner of a tome, clocking in at around 700 pages of typically Russian overtalk. Most people give it up after about 250 hard-fought pages. “It’s like Dostoevsky sat down and said, ‘I’m going to write the human condition’, and he didn’t realize what he’d gotten himself into” a friend of mine once said. And it’s not like Dostoevsky is the only writer to take this task on; he’s simply made the most palatable and endearing attempt. And you know that Colin Meloy has read the whole thing.
At least that is what one may gather from the Decemberists’ major-label debut, Crane Wife. What makes it a particularly breathtaking record is the fact that Meloy et al. have not only managed to capture a portion of what makes us alive but that they have done so from an entirely first-person perspective. While their previous attempts to be Klezmer All-Stars certainly were not failures, the band could not shake the fact that they are from Portland in the 21st Century, not, say, Eastern Europe in the 18th. This time, when Colin Meloy tells us that the Shankill Butchers are “sharpening their cleavers and their knives / And taking all their whiskey by the pint,” he no longer appears in the Playbill as the Town Crier; he’s watching the action unfold for himself. This change in tone, from storyteller to witness, gives Crane Wife an authoritative, parable-like quality.
The entire record flows with the effortless emotion that the group flashed briefly in Castaways and Cutouts’ “California One / Youth and Beauty Brigade,” only sustained for an entire hour. One early emotional peak – there are many – occurs in “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)” which finds Meloy a Union soldier and Laura Viers his bride. As the pair send their words off – he from the battlefield, she from a grand promenade – the listener wonders whether they will ever meet again, or if it is better for their love if they remain apart. There are two languages at work here, that of music and that of words. And as they send out the words — “But oh my love, though our bodies may be parted
/ Though our skin may not touch skin
/ Look for me with the sun-bright sparrow
/ I will come on the breath of the wind.” – we ache as a people. Or, as John Donne said, Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. The Decemberists may be telling stories, but they are stories of truth; Meloy may not have known how accurate he was in Picaresque’s “The Engine Driver” when he said “I am a writer, I am all that you have hoped on.”
Much has been made in the early reviews concerning the minor prog influence which shows up in Crane Wife, most notably in “The Island, Come and See, the Landlord’s Daughter, You’ll Not Feel the Drowning,” the first nine minutes of which come across as Yes all dressed up in a fake mustache and dusty bowler. It doesn’t work until the final gigue, when all the Casiotones have been locked away and the band return to their familiar instruments in austere reprise. The time we’ve spent suffering through the earlier sections – and it is a bit torturous – is now redeemed by the power of the pedal steel.
After nearly an hour of tragedy, comedy, murder, redemption, love, hate, and two songs about birds, the Decemberists settle into “Sons and Daughters,” building repetitively upon a foundation of accordion and acoustic guitar into a truly grand crescendo; a tale of having arrived, having finished the race. The tension in Crane Wife raises and drops with Shakespearian precision, each track carefully calibrated to bring out the best in its neighbors. By the time the group lean into “Sons and Daughters,” we share the looks of proud determination on their faces. It’s a celebration of the spirit that triumphs over heartbreak, over agony, over being alive.
It’s hard not to give this record a perfect review, because by the time “Crane Wife 1 and 2” fade into “Sons and Daughters,” any early missteps have been completely redeemed. And for a record about the human condition, Crane Wife has done exactly what it set out to do; we are willing to forgive the nine minutes of noodling in “The Island,” the faux-reggae of “The Perfect Crime 2,” and the U2-esque “When the War Came” because of the overall triumph of the album as a whole. It is not a perfect record, but it is hard not to see it as one. As we look back at the rest of it through the lens of its finale, it is hard not to love Crane Wife as the sum of its parts; here’s hoping that the we can look at the one another the same way.

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