10th Anniversary: Revisiting ‘The Crane Wife’
By Kelly Mintzer
I have gone mad with power. It was probably inevitable or foretold in prophecy or something similarly bleak and ill-defined, but now, at last it has come to fruition-full power madness. Given free reign and a long leash, I have started and discarded, respectively, a “Common Sense” type treatise on the charms of “Yuri on Ice”, a sort of travelogue prequel-if such a thing can be accused of existing-of my impending London “Hamilton” sojourn, and an impossible think piece on the prevalence of Lego Lokis at the Women’s March in Philadelphia. These are all clearly insane theses, it was only the power madness typing, I promise.
The answer of what I should write came to me through the tiny sound of Samsung intervention. Left to run roughshod, my phone cycled through my varied and weird musical library and landed on “O Valencia!” by the Decemberists. I had just bought tickets to the “Crane Wife” ten year anniversary show earlier in the morning, and now this-a song I hadn’t listened to in months, and just when I needed some sort of cosmic structure to lead me in the right direction, hallelujah, it must be a sign.
I don’t really believe that, but I’m pushing play now anyway.
And it is immediately ten years ago, right around my 21st birthday. The album opens improbably with “The Crane Wife 3”, and for the uninitiated, there are parts 1 and 2, but they will not appear until later, their presence wisely separated from what is, ultimately, the best version of the song by several tracks. In fact, “The Crane Wife 3” is an almost perfect Decemberists song. It is so erudite and esoteric you can practically hear the pocket protectors and retainers, a re-telling of an obscure Japanese fairy tale complete with a moral and a bird who turns into a woman then back into a bird again, distilled through all of Colin Meloy’s best pop sensibilities-a big, shout along chorus, just the right amount of repetition. It is something of a structural jolt to go into the next song? Suite? It’s hard to know exactly what to call “The Island”. It’s almost its own mini album within the album. I’ve been a Decemberists fan for the past 800 years, including their more difficult work (I see you, “The Tain”), so I am on board for a twelve plus minute prog rock song with a sort of murder “Lost” vibe to it. It is, however, easily the most alienating and challenging song on the album. Not just because of the ELO meets Wings by way of Emerson, Lake and Palmer vibe, but also because of how intensely depressing it gets. The last movement (“You’ll not feel the drowning”-pretty great name, right?) is one of those songs I listen to whenever I want to feel just really terrible. It always gets the job done.
It’s been years since I have just listened to this album straight through, and I am immediately gobsmacked by how well it holds up. Call it a benefit to writing incredibly baroque music-it ends up being kind of timeless. It would be so easy to go track by track through it, but as greatly as I enjoy self-indulgence I will refrain. But, man, this album is all over the place. It feels like Colin kind of threw his hands in the air and absolutely abandoned any notion of being constrained by genre or style. “Yankee Bayonet” is a lilting Civil War folk duet, chased by the aforementioned “O Valencia!”-which may be the most purely pop song the Decemberists have ever written, and still is a “Romeo and Juliet” type tragic love story. Even a perfect album has weaker songs. I couldn’t mount a riveting defense of “The Perfect Crime #2”-it is a bit too disco fabulous, a flavor that feels a bit out of place and then proceeds to feel out of place for five and a half minutes. “Summersong” is fine. It is the aural equivalent of vanilla bean ice cream. You don’t hate it, it’s certainly better than pistachio, but it’s no cookie dough.
The greatest trick, however, that “The Crane Wife” manages to pull is in the quality of stories it consistently tells. Across the incredibly long history of music, the prevailing theme is that of the straight forward love song; loving and having, loving and longing, loving and losing. There are no simple stories on “The Crane Wife”. Colin Meloy writes elaborate fables, borrows from history to sing about murderous Irish gangs (“The Shankhill Butchers”) or the siege of Leningrad (“When the War Came”). It is an album full of idea and nuance populated by one of the greatest vocabularies to ever grace modern music.
And here, on its ten year anniversary, in a year that is rife with unease and uncertainty, “The Crane Wife” closes with one of the brightest, most optimistic songs in the entire Decemberists oeuvre. “Sons and Daughters” promises the immigrant experience will someday lead to a place where “bombs fade away.” A decade later, it still sounds like hope.