The Crane Wife – The Decemberists Become Accessible!

3 out of 5 stars

The Crane Wife

I was shocked when I heard the opening chords to the Decemberists’ 2006 release, The Crane Wife. (The song is called “The Crane Wife 3,” while “The Crane Wife 1 & 2” finish the album, for some strange reason. Oh yeah – They’re quirky!) A single acoustic guitar played, strong and subdued at the same time. Even Colin Meloy’s voice entering over the guitar didn’t bother me too much.

After years of enduring this overrated group, I had finally found a Decemberists song I could put on my iPod.

The Crane Wife was the Decemberists’ major label debut, and the bizarre theatrics of Picaresque are subdued somewhat – perhaps to reach a wider audience and please the record executives at Capitol. I can just imagine the conversation.

Record Exec: So, Meloy, you got a single for me? I need something bouncy, something emo for the kids.

Meloy (reluctantly): Well, I have a really good song for the opening cut. (Perks up) I also have this 12-minute medley that’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Temp

Record Exec: Yeah, yeah, whatever. Hey, can you sound like James Blunt?

A thesaurus full of lyrics

The aforementioned medley is excruciating as Meloy goes back into quirk mode with the series of songs that, while describing a kidnapping and murder by drowning, mention the words “curlews,” “barb,” “arabesques,” “jetty,” “cormorants,” “parallax,” and “sable.” I didn’t like the songs, but my vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds.

Luckily, enduring the medley (titled “The Island: Come and See / The Landlord’s Daughter / You’ll Not Feel the Drowning”, of course) has its rewards. I finally experience the plain but pleasant voice of Jenny Conlee on “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then),” and I wonder why she doesn’t sing more. And then … there it is again! Another iPod worthy track! “O Valencia!”, which has been featured in several commercials, opens with a pounding drum and guitar riff reminiscent of R.E.M.’s “Seven Chinese Brothers” (Lawsuit! Lawsuit!) and is downright poppy – until you listen to the lyrics, in which two gangs battle, causing the shooting death of the narrator’s girlfriend. (Cue Debbie Downer music)

The Crane Wife is – dare I say it? – enjoyable in many places, and it even seems as if Meloy’s over-enunciating and reedy tone are less annoying. But while the lyrics once again read like poetry, I’m not sure they really should be set to music. With the above example, it’s almost as if Meloy, et al are trying to impress us with their vocabulary, or look down their noses at us from the heights of the intellectual elite.

As I reach the concluding song(s), the 11-minute “The Crane Wife 1 & 2” (yes, another medley), I continue to hear bits and pieces that are really, really good. But then – wait a minute, did he just say “dirigible”? Is that the first time that’s ever happened in a song? Sometimes, I just wish the Decemberists would stop with the airs and just rawk.

There’s an island hidden in the sound
Lapping currents lay your boat aground
Affix your barb and bayonet
The curlews carve their arabesques
And sorrow fills the silence all around
Come and see
There’s a harbor lost within the reeds
A jetty caught in overhanging trees
Among the bones of cormorants
No boot-mark here nor fingerprint
The rivers roll down to a soundless sea
Come and see
Come and see
The tides all come and go
Witnessed by no waking eye
The willows mark the wind
And all we know for sure
Amidst this fading light
We’ll not go home again
Come and see
Come and see
In the lowlands, nestled in the heath
A briar-cradle rocks its babe to sleep
Its contents watched by Sycorax
And Patagon in parallax
A foretold rumbling sounds below the deep
Come and see
Come and see
The tides all come and go
Witnessed by no waking eye
The willows mark the wind
And all we know for sure
Amidst this fading light
We’ll not go home again
Come and see
Come and see
The Landlord’s Daughter
As I was a-ramble
Down by the water
I spied in sable
The landlord’s daughter
I produced my pistol, then my saber
Said, “Make no whistle or thou will be murdered!”
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
But I’ll take those sweet lips, and thou will deliver!”


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Peter Lee


  1. Marianne Faithfull does a great cover of The Crane Wife 3 on her new album (with Nick Cave on background vocal!). It’s a wonderful song and I’m torn as to what version I like better. Although Hal Wilner’s production on the cover my have me tipping towards Marianne.

  2. The Crane Wife is truly enjoyable to my ear because its lyrics are poetic. I like Crane Wife 3 better!

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