There are a few things about the new Decemberists album that may cause some hesitation from listeners. First off, this is their first record for Capitol, and major label debuts from respected indie bands — even bands that are already pretty huge — can sometimes make fans nervous. Fortunately, The Crane Wife doesn’t dull any of the exaggerated, antique vibe of older Decemberists records. If anything, it’s their riskiest album yet.
Beyond the usual high concept story songs, there’s also some seriously proggy stuff on this album. Granted, the band put out a whole pseudo-metal concept EP in 2004 called The Tain, which contained some of the best material they’ve written, and last year’s Picaresque had more than a couple ambitious mini-epics thrown around. But what they’re getting into on ‘The Landlord’s Daughter’, the third in a four-part suite early in this album, is all-out, Celtic-sounding, Emerson, Lake and Palmer-style instrumental runs. The effect isn’t unlike the scene in Spinal Tap when the two dwarfs are dancing around the tiny replica of Stonehenge.
The thing is, this grand, dramatic sound usually actually works for this band. The Decemberists are a group that consciously tries to exist in this highly conceptual little bubble they’ve built up. They’ve done the costume thing on stage, they’re always looking cartoony in press photos and on album art, and their super-literate vocabulary never fails to complete the band’s old-fashioned image. Colin Meloy has always been a lyrical showoff, so it’s hardly shocking that he’s being a musical showoff now, too.
On top of that, the proggier moments on this record are few and far between. Besides two longpieces, there are eight shorter songs that span from shanties to upbeat pop to a slick, noir-ish murder tune called ‘The Perfect Crime’. Yes, this is the kind of stuff they’ve been doing for three full albums prior, and yes, a bit of the shtick is definitely wearing off at this point. But as long as they keep stretching the formula here and there, there’s a lot they can still get away with.