Fresh off the success of 2005’s Picaresque, The Decemberists had gone on to release their fourth studio record, The Crane Wife, under the bright lights of a major label. After years of gleefully busking their tunes with indie labels, Hush and Kill Rock Stars, the band had become enough of a cult phenomena to attract Capitol Records, and turn the pages indefinitely. While previous albums, such as Castaways and Cutouts, had laid the groundwork, it was The Crane Wife that had ultimately introduced the band’s pine-scented, old-timey sensibilities and unapologetically nerdy means of storytelling to a much wider audience beyond the small-community theaters of dingy bars and musky college auditoriums.
Lyrically, The Crane Wife possesses a breathtaking sense of imagery, alliteration, and provocative themes that explores the complexities of marriage and its woes in its contemporary retelling of the ancient Japanese folktale of the same name. The old tale centers on a lonely man of extremely humble beginnings who comes to discover a wounded crane deep within a stretch of woods. He nurtures the bird back to health – releasing it into the wild – only for the crane to magically reappear on the his doorstep in the form of a woman who wishes to be his wife. As part of their deal, she volunteers to weave fabrics for him so he may earn some extra cash selling them in the local markets.
The catch: he must quell any personal desires to watch her sew such ornate and unique fabrics. Though, as these things tend to go, the man becomes overwhelmed with curiosity and peeks into his wife’s sewing room. He becomes shocked, though, to find the woman he wedded is, in fact, the very wounded crane he had come across within those woods long ago. He observes the crane plucking at her own feathers to weave these beautiful pieces of fabric. The crane wife eventually catches him in the act, and flies away without explanation – leaving the poor man to his inevitable lonesome.
There are many conflicting explanations as to what the crane wife in fact means. Some critical interpretations of the piece have to do with the futilities of greed and self-sacrifice. Though when it comes to its place on the record itself, The Decemberists are more than willing to leave such interpretations of a morale in the periphery. Ultimately, the tracks concern itself around themes of love, submission, and secrecy.
On the record, the adaptation follows an out-of-order, three-part structure: “The Crane Wife 3” being the lead-in song to the entire record, while “The Crane Wfe 1 & 2” comes in on a nearly 12-minute track towards the end of the album. The rest of The Crane Wife is a rogues’ gallery of cold-hearted thieves, homicidal butchers (“The Shankill Brothers”), fallen soldiers, and languishing lovers (“O Valencia!” and “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)”). Third person narratives present portraits of deeply flawed, Dickensian outcasts set in a fantastical, otherworldly Appalachia with many layers of beauty, irony, and sadness.
The use of arcane, hard-to-pronounce vocabulary in the verses and chorus – words that don’t at all seem musical – can all come across as stuffy and pretentious on the surface. Though such idioms aren’t posed in a way that is ultimately extraneous, nor does it serve to separate the listener from the music or narrative. They are best served as a means of drawing you in closer within the world the band is trying to create and convey. Such three to four-syllable words actually ends up propelling the songs forward rhythmically, and helps to give a nonsensical quality to the record without being extremely cheesy about it.
Given the seemingly highfalutin, literary nature of these songs, it’s only natural for some to incorporate actual Shakespearean references – particularly found in “The Island” (The Tempest) as well as “O, Valencia!” (Romeo & Juliet). “O, Valencia!” grimly tells the short story of two lovers who, coming from dueling families, inevitably face their tragic ends. Whereas the adventures found in “The Island”, while also dark, has sort of a childlike inventiveness to the telling of such epics – almost as if you were a young kid sitting over an open fire somewhere deep within the campgrounds of some Northwestern wilderness, listening to your uncle relay creepy albeit exciting parables of a faraway land.
Earlier records, Picaresque and Her Majesty, had also contained adaptations of existing pieces of literature, “Of Angels of Angles” and “Song for Myla Goldberg” come to mind, though its The Crane Wife – and eventually Hazards of Love – that dives even deeper into the vaults of urban myths and folklore to present a much more epic and theatrical rehashing of these kinds of fanciful stories. Each of The Decemberists’ albums do end up following the same solid formula, both musically and lyrically, however of differing degrees for each their records. I’m not sure there is even a single “bad” record in their entire catalague. Each album seems to serve a specific, well-designed purpose. Though, ultimately, it was The Crane Wife that had made the band a household name.