Monday, January 29, 2007


1. The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
It’s not just about sea shanties any more, folks. The fact that I could say this about the band that put out my number one album of the year says a lot about how far they’ve come. I’ve always loved the Decemberists, but they were the lovable oddballs, the equivalent of Beirut or Andrew Bird: you love the fact that they’re out there, sticking to their guns and making it look easy. But they were never going to make it to the top. Never.
Every time I listen to the album I come up with a different explanation for their transformation from pseudo-novelty act to indie rock juggernaut. To be fair, it started with Picaresque. It broadened the horizons, stretched their wings a little bit. “On the Bus Mall” was a huge leap forward for Colin Meloy’s songwriting. People took notice and waited for what came next. It’s not until the second track on The Crane Wife that you see how far they’re willing to stretch on this one. It’s one of these multi-part suites that’s getting to be de rigeur for bands looking to do something unexpected. Unlike most, though, it makes sense here. They wear the prog rock hat with ease; it’s not a gimmick with them. At the same time, they can leave it behind whenever they need to, and more importantly, they can take that big, bombastic sound of huge prog rock opuses and lay it over their shorter songs, giving them more punch and verve than ever before. “The Perfect Crime 2” and “When the War Came” use the epic language and imagery of overblown prog but keep it simple at the same time, remaining tight little pop songs that pack a hell of a punch. I really haven’t seen a band do that as well since Genesis.
They often get accused of pretentiousness, and that’s a valid point. I have to say that I have rolled my eyes at certain Colin Meloy couplets in the past. The Crane Wife fulfills the promise made on all those previous recordings, though. It’s as if he was saying, “Just bear with me while I tune up here, guys” for three albums. They’re also accused of getting a free pass from indie rock critics a whole lot, too. When I mentioned to my best friend Ted that this album was in the running for the top spot, I could actually hear him roll his eyes over the phone. “Yeah, you and every other indie rock asshole this year.” With those words ringing in my ears, I hopped over to Pitchfork as soon as they put up their year-end list. The Crane Wife was #41. (The Knife was #1. Really? Really?) As a matter of fact, not many people put it up top this year. Its luster faded with repeated listens, I guess.
Not for me, though. I awaited this album eagerly and was blown away when I finally heard it. The songs are literate without being pretentious. They’re grand without being overblown. They’re meaningful without being cumbersome. They’re breezy without being sugary. The Decemberists strike a balance here that is so hard. They manage to take what makes indie rock insufferable and turn it into something beautiful and lasting. And they seem to be having a blast doing it. “Sons and Daughters” is a perfect close, a joyous and hopeful promise to future generations to make it better for them. This is their contribution, and I love it.


Blogger Tara said...

You're right, this is not a surprising #1 pick, but I still love to read what you have to say about it.

7:34 AM  
Anonymous kyle said...

"musical masterpiece"

5:45 PM  
Blogger Beaze said...

Lovely post. Crane Wife, Pts 1 & 2 is 11 minutes of bliss.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Brad said...

So it wasn't K-Fed. Damn your eyes, Cliff.

9:10 AM  

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