Decemberists songwriter and frontman Colin Meloy first came across the story of The Crane Wife several years ago, in the children's section of a bookstore in Portland. A venerable Japanese folk tale that has been handed down in countless variations and translations through the centuries (as venerable folk tales are wont to do), the deceptively simple story has stayed with Meloy ever since.
"I thought that it would be a great thing to try to put it to some sort of song form, be it a single tune or something longer," he recalls. "So I struggled with that for years until finally I realized that it just needed more parts and set about building those."
He had plenty to occupy him in the meantime: the past three years have seen his band, The Decemberists rise to the first rank of the indie music world with a series of bold, beautiful albums, including 2005's Picaresque and Her Majesty, The Decemberists (2003). On these albums, Meloy's crafty compositions marry an infallible melodic knack with a venturesome lyrical palette equally suitable for painting fantastical songs full of sea captains, legionnaires, chimney sweeps and seekers of all kinds.
Led by these songs, and by a group dynamic that embraces experimentation even as it celebrates classic pop and folk forms - to say nothing of klezmer, Irish jig, sea chantey, and prog rock - The Decemberists are firmly established as a completely original happening in the world of contemporary indie rock: sold out tours across the nation, widespread popular and critical acclaim, and an aesthetic all their own.
Still, as their star rose in the demimonde, Meloy noticed that the band - himself, multi-instrumentalist Chris Funk, keyboardist Jenny Conlee, bassist Nate Query and drummer John Moen - had its eyes trained on broader horizons. "It wasn't like we needed to force the change," he explains, "but the change was happening. I could tell when I was sitting down with the guitar...what was coming out wasn't the same old stuff."
The stuff that was coming out would become the band's most ambitious record to date. Drawing on the long-simmering inspiration of the Crane Wife story, Meloy has written a collection of songs that leap off from the folk tale and into a rich, complex musical landscape. It's tempting to think of The Crane Wife as a concept album, but that's not really accurate. The album is more like an extrapolation of the folk tale, a re-imagining of its themes on a broader canvas. For every song that touches directly on Meloy's interpretation of the Japanese legend (gorgeous album opener "The Crane Wife 3," or its prequel, "The Crane Wife 1 and 2"), several more take their cue from the fabric of the story, only to stretch outward into other visions.
Sometimes the visions are of bleak urban murderers on the prowl in "The Shankhill Butchers"; sometimes the waterlogged mingling of love and death in "Summersong." And though death, war, greed, and murder enshroud the album's thematic framework, The Crane Wife is a resounding celebration of life. No matter how dark the words may get, the album's spirit is buoyed by boundless energy and an expansive musical vocabulary. Styles and influences abound - shades of Pink Floyd, Yes, and Fairport Convention trade off with more anthemic touchstones like middle-period R.E.M., The Waterboys, and even early U2 - but the sound of The Decemberists is unique in contemporary pop music.
This blend of dark and light was informed by the recording process, during which the band was able, for the first time in its career, to take time building their arrangements in a well-equipped studio setting in Portland. Granted the luxury of preparation, the band and co-producers Chris Walla (guitarist/producer for Death Cab for Cutie) and Tucker Martine (Laura Veirs) cultivated an atmosphere of total creative freedom for the two-and-a-half months the group spent making The Crane Wife.
The album's unquestionable centerpiece is the 13-minute murder ballad "The Island," with its subsections "Come and See," "The Landlord's Daughter," and "You'll Not Feel the Drowning." As the lyrics chronicle a tale of abduction, rape, and murder, the instruments chart a far-flung course through multiple musical genres and influences. In short, a masterpiece in itself. However, set alongside the urgent, anguished rock of "When the War Came," and perfect pop confections like "O, Valencia" and "Sons and Daughters," it begins to seem like a statement of purpose.
"There was a real strong sense among the band that we were not going to try to make a record that somebody would typically make for a major label," Meloy explains. "We didn't want the fact that we had signed onto a major label change our approach or aesthetic. In some ways, I think it pushed us farther to the left, farther out of the comfortable Decemberists zone."
The Crane Wife may be many things - a deconstructed folk tale, an intimate epic, a great new record by an essential American band - but it could never be called typical.