They used to be just like me and you
They used to be sweet little boys
But something went horribly askew
Now killing is their only source of joy
The Decemberists’ new album, due out in October, has been leaking out in various fora. The album is loosely organized around a Japanese tale of a man who saves a crane’s life, and later marries a mysterious woman who helps him rise above the poverty of being a fisherman, but finally flees as she is revealed to be the same crane. The theme of transformation, of suffering, of contorted perversions below the calm surfaces, returns the band and frontman Colin Meloy to the sorts of twisted tales and poetic language that make me such a fan of the band.
The album opens with the fisherman watching the crane wife transform, feathers falling from her skin as she becomes human. “Each feather, it fell from skin,/ ’til threadbare, she grew thin./ “How were my eyes so blinded?”/ Each feather, it fell from skin.” The story doesn’t begin again until the next-to-last song, which tells how they met.
This album moves away from the toegazing sound from Picaresque that made me throw a bunch of Decemberists tunes into an iTunes playlist with Belle and Sebastian. This is closer to the sound we heard on earlier albums, though a bit more adventurous in many ways.
This first major label release finds the band moving in different musical directions. Where the edges of the instrumentals tended to blend smoothly with the vocals in previous releases, there are more sharp edges to the Crane Wife. The production moves the spotlight off of Meloy’s voice and guitar, producing more of an ensemble than you heard on earlier albums. Wider use of backup vocals and a duet with Laura Veirs on “Yankee Bayonet” also shift the direction away from Colin and his lyrics, bringing the whole band forward more.
The band also explores a wider variety of genres, with “Sons and Daughters” and “Shankill Butchers” capturing more of their older indie sound, other songs falling into a harder rock vein, and hints of funk and Jethro Tull can be found elsewhere. “The Island, Come and See, The Landlord’s Daughter, You’ll Not Feel the Drowning” feels very much like an exploration of rock history, with hints of Zeppelin, Tull, and perhaps a touch of Pink Floyd evident throughout.
This diversity of styles gives new ways for Meloy to spin his tales. “Shankill Butchers” is closest to the style of songs like “Eli the Barrow-boy” or “Leslie Ann Levine,” and generally seems closest to the Decemberists we knew before. “The Island …” is a song cycle in the tradition of The Tain, but going in a different musical direction, one that emphasizes musical form over lyrical form. “Yankee Bayonet” is a dialog, almost epistolary, between a soldier killed in the Civil War and his sweetheart at home. “Perfect Crime” is a funk tune with a traditional Greek imprecation “Sing muse…”
Wordplay remains the order of the day; few other lyricists would attempt a rhyme with “parallax,” nor — as Mike notes — between “élan” and “divans.” Unfortunately, the same production choices that brought the whole band to the front also makes the lyrics occasionally harder to distinguish, a trade-off I wish weren’t necessary.
Having listened to the album for a couple weeks, it’s definitely growing on me. At first, I would have considered it a step backward. But once a few songs got stuck in my head, and I had to listen again and again to clear it out, it keeps moving up in my estimation.
This is the story of your red right ankle
And how it came to meet your leg
And how the muscle, bone and sinews tangle
And how the skin was softly shed
And how it whispered “Oh, adhere to me!
For we are bound by symmetry.
Whatever differences our lives have been,
We together make a limb.”
This is the story of your red right ankle.