The Decemberists Tell Tales of Heart
In a musical landscape dominated by the echo of a million dance-punk hi-hats, the Decemberists, a curious Portland, Oregon, five-piece pop outfit have quietly crafted three albums worth of literary, whimsical pop songs that seem more interested in telling a good story than packing a dance floor. Since the group’s debut in 2002, lead singer and songwriter Colin Meloy has continued to buck prevailing trends with his endless experimentation with the music accompaniment his densely narrative tales of love, murder and revenge.
Building on a simple guitar-and-piano folk aesthetic established on Castaways and Cutouts and 2003’s Her Majesty The Decemberists, last year’s Picaresque represented a bold step forward for the group, a brilliant maelstrom of musical styles and influences that ranged from the brassy funk of "Sixteen Military Wives” to the leering gypsy stomp of the epic "The Mariner’s Revenge,” all while maintaining a sound that was undeniably their own. With The Crane Wife, the group’s fourth full-length album and first on major label Capitol Records, Meloy continues to expand the Decemberists’ sound into new and unexplored territory, creating what he feels is their most ambitious disc yet."With this record, I knew going into it that I just couldn’t do the same album again,” says Meloy. "We wanted to make a record that would sit nicely in the discography, but that also would be challenging and interesting to people who have been listening to us for a while and are ready for some change. To me, this is our most ‘capital-D’ difficult record to date.”
With the help of Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla and Seattle producer Tucker Martine manning the boards, The Crane Wife teems with renewed enthusiasm as it flirts with the spaciousness and scope of such influential ’70s progressive folk-rock acts as Pentangle, Anne Briggs and Fairport Convention. Though the disc boasts more "classic” Decemberists arrangements like the lovelorn "O Valencia” and foreboding "Shankill Butchers,” the album’s most striking departures are found in the two epic tracks that bookend it — "The Island,” a 12-minute musical freak-out that begins with a bluesy rock stomp before exploding into a cacophony of bubbling Hammond synth harmonies and roiling distortion, and the 11-minute title track, which tells the album’s titular story in three movements.
"When I was writing the album, I was really immersing myself in a lot of the ’60s and ’70s British folk revival music,” Meloy explains. "Fairport Convention and Pentangle were the bands that introduced the ideas of themes in folk songs and taking more of a mystic approach to songwriting. In so many way, it was exactly what I was looking for.”
Meloy felt it was a perfect fit to accompany the album’s story; based on an old Japanese folk tale, The Crane Wife tells the tragic tale of a man who falls in love with a woman who appears at his doorstep after he nurses a wounded crane back to health, only to lose everything when he foolishly breaks a spell with his greed.
"It’s a really gorgeous but really simple and striking story,” Meloy says. "It touches on themes that are universal across cultures, and there’s something that feel really ancient about it.”
While Meloy admits that the album’s musical direction may prove to be a tough sell among Decemberists’ long-time fans, he feels The Crane Wife represents a logical progression for the band, and he couldn’t be happier with the results. "Really, we just wanted to challenge ourselves. I knew going into it that it had the potential to be really great, or maybe miss the mark. And the jury’s still out on that, but it’s a really satisfying record to me. It’s one of my favourite things that we’ve done.”
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