When I was in my late one's, maybe around eight years old, my Dad and I were big into playing Transformers with each other. Our favorite activity involved setting up two vast opposing armies of Decepticons and Autobots in our living room and pitting them against each other in combat while a dramatic soundtrack played in the background. We always used my Dad's music - his record collection was constantly scattered enticingly around the house - but we both knew which song to play at the battle's climax. For the longest time I only knew it as "The Wild Song," our private slang for the tune. But in high school I finally found out that all along we had been setting our cinematic war to The Pogue's "Turkish Song of the Damned," off of If I Should Fall from Grace with God. If I ever have kids, we will set up whichever toys are popular and fight them against each other, and the song I'll play will be The Decemberists' 12-minute epic "The Island."
Leading music review sites and magazines have already showered The Crane Wife with glory. The reviewer at Tiny Mix Tapes even suggested he almost quit the business of writing about music after the epiphany of listening to the album. While it's not quite that life-changing, Crane Wife is still definitely an excellent work. When the sound of what can only be described as the sickest accordion/keyboard note this side of the Atlantic bleets above the rolling din of drums and vocals at 7:51 in the "Landlord's Daughter" section of "The Island," you know you're listening to one of America's most important bands.
The album is framed in reverse order by two songs (The Crane Wife, Pt.3 and The Crane Wife, Pts. 1 & 2) that retell a Japanese folk tale about a farmer who finds a beautiful wife adept at weaving but becomes greedy, forcing her to change back into the crane she really wa and fly away from him forever (hey, it's a folk tale). Colin Meloy, the Decemberists' frontman whose voice I wish I could bottle and preserve forever, said in an interview with Pitchfork Media that Crane Wife is not a concept album. If it had been, we probably would have to listen to 10 bombastic, allegorical pieces of prog rock rather than just one, 12-minute, amazing piece of prog-rock, and the songs on the album which actually do tell the Crane Wife story would lose all their effectiveness.
As for the rest of the album, the seven songs planted between the opening and two-track-long finale run the gamut of classic Decemberist characters, including separated Civil War-era lovers, bank robbers and Irish serial killers. Listeners accustomed to the orchestral richness of Picaresque songs like "We Both Go Down Together" and "16 Military Wives" will find on Crane Wife a much sparer production. But that's not as bad as it might sound; the disciplined composition opens up space for Meloy's maturing vocal talents and memorable guitar moments like the slick, three-note stab at 1:43 in "The Perfect Crime #2."
Despite the epic musicianship which marks the the first nine of the album's ten tracks, the Decemberists reach the pinnacle of their career to date in the final song, "Sons and Daughters." Following the heartache of "Crane Wife Pts. 1 & 2," the five-minute long triumphal march inexorably raises the listener to an ecstatic height, calling "Take up your arm, sons and daughters/we will arise from the bunkers/by land, by sea, by dirigible/we'll leave our tracks untraceable now." By the time the full band begins chanting "Hear all the bombs fade away," over a crescendoing accordion and pulsing drums, you can't help but feel that despite the gloom in the world today, the Decemberists will always be there to tell you a good story.