The Crane Wife


The most eagerly anticipated indie/alt rock album of 2006 is being released by the decidedly major label Capitol Records. Does this tell us something about the music industry halfway through the opening decade of the new millennium or is it more a testimony to the artistry, diligence and focus of the Decemberists? Probably a little bit of both. 

Personally, I am hoping and praying that The Crane Wife sells a gazillion copies and marks a seachange in album buying habits worldwide and the power of pop becomes a treasured commodity even by the casual pop music listener. Not least because Colin Meloy and co have adopted a “no compromise” policy with regards their major label debut – expecting Capitol Records to take them as they are, without any concessions to potential sales or album charts.  

In fact, I would dare to suggest that The Crane Wife is slightly more ambitious than last year’s Picaresque as the band widens their musical palette. In honour of this auspicious event, I will be reviewing The Crane Wife song by song. 

“The Crane Wife 3”

In typical contrary fashion, the album opens with the third part of the title track – talk about beginning with the end! “Crane Wife 3” is a bouncy requiem filled with regret and sadness with its nominal choral hook of “I will hang my head/Hang my head low” resonating. More about the title track further down. 

“The Island, Come and See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel the Drowning”

A 12-minute three-song progressive rock suite about adventure, plunder, rape and murder. The kind of track you would expect (demand) to hear from Jethro Tull in their absolute prime. The swirling organs are a sheer wonder and prog fans will adore the faithfulness in which the band concocts this beauty. The subject matter is basic enough – a pirate discovers an island (“The tides will come and go/Witnessed by no waking eye/Who rose like the wind/Though we know for sure/Amidst this fading light/We'll not go home again”); he also discovers the daughter of the island’s master and makes his intentions clear (She cursed, she shivered/She cried for mercy, ‘My gold and silver if thou will release me!’/I'll take no gold miss, I'll take no silver/I'll take those sweet lips, and I'll deliver”) and after his ‘delivery’ he murders her and dumps her body in the sea (I will dress your eyelids/With dimes upon your eyes/Laying close to water/Green your grave will rise/Go to sleep now little ugly/go to sleep now little fool/Forty-winking in the belfry/You'll not feel the drowning/You'll not feel the drowning”). What would you expect from a pirate & bandit? Think of it as a sort of adult-themed Pirates of the Caribbean! 

“Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)”

A folk tune (a duet with Laura Veirs) about a doomed couple from the Civil War. Of a young solder dead before his time with a pregnant wife left behind. “But oh, did you see all the dead of Manassas/All the bellies and the bones and the bile?/No, I lingered here with the blankets barren/And my own belly big with child.” Unfortunately, a very real sentiment in this day and age as numerous wars are fought on planet Earth. Despite its hopelessness, the song ends optimistically if wistfully - “Oh my love, though our bodies may be parted/Though our skin may not touch skin/Look for me with the sun-bright sparrow/I will come on the breath of the wind”  

“O Valencia”

Here comes the first of two catchy singles to appease the Capitol suits though not like anything else you are likely to hear on radio. Lyrically, “O Valencia” is a Romeo & Juliet story – “And our families can't agree/I'm your brother's sworn enemy/But I'll shout out my love to the stars/So wait for the stone on your window/Your window/Wait by the car and we'll go/We'll go.” Musically, the song features a radio friendly beat and an infectious chorus that should go a long way towards making an impression on impressionable teens.

“The Perfect Crime 2”

Possible hit no. 2 would be a shoo-in if this was issued in the 70s. It has that cool ELO/McCartney/Billy Joel-Rhodes driven vibe with a smooth Latin soul flavour that sticks in the head. I can see this as a music video done in the style of a classic heist movie. Do they make those anymore? 

“When the War Came”

Probably the weakest track on The Crane Wife. Built around a prog-metal riff, “When the War Came” is a not too subtle protest song that fits in with the current US political climate. 

“Shankill Butchers”

In the early 70s, the “Butchers” were an Ulster Volunteer Force (in Northern Ireland)  who preyed on Roman Catholics by kidnapping innocents, torturing and murdering them in cold blood. Sound familiar? What we would term today as “terrorists.” Chillingly topical for our turbulent times. A sad & melancholy murder ballad that is not easy to listen to without trembling.  


Reminiscent of Neil Young midtempo rockers –without the grungy guitars – this is a fairly breezy and lighter (love) song to contrast the generally serious tone of the album. Extremely poetic, “My girl, linen and curls/Lips parting like a flag all unfurled/She's grand, the bend of her hand/Digging deep into the sweep of the sand” being a particular favourite of mine. That said, the tune is shockingly throwaway. 

“The Crane Wife 1 & 2”

Based on the Japanese folk tale, the title track features fine guitar work and astute narration from the (crane) husband’s perspective. A cautionary tale of the consequences of allowing greed to overtake love. Musically nimble moving from emotion to emotion from longing (“I am a poor man /I haven't wealth nor fame/I have my two hands/And a house to my name/And the winter's so /And the winter's so long”) to joy (“We were married/And bells rang sweet for our wedding/And our bedding was ready/We fell in”) to evil desire (“But I was greedy/I was vain and I forced her to weaving/On a cold loom in a closed room/Down hall”) to loss to mourning. Truly brilliant. 

“Sons And Daughters”

And so it ends. With a trademarked Decemberists song, consisting of a lovely melody, folk guitars and sing-a-long verses that resound of the (misplaced?) hope of a better life in the midst of a cruel and unforgiving world. 

“Hear all the bombs fade away” is the plaintive cry that closes this magnificent album. A work of art that looks to the past in order to guide us into the future. Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to the album of the year…. A+