“The Crane Wife” (the album) is The Decemberists fourth studio album, their 4th in 4 years, and brings to a close their initial burst of creativity. It manages to mix longer, literary influenced pieces (the title track(s)) and another mini opera, “The Island”, with some great Indie-Pop (“Yankee Bayonet”, “O Valencia” and “Summersong”) and doesn’t ignore those folky roots (“Shankill Butchers”).
“The Crane Wife” (the songs) is a Japanese folk tale of a man who marries a woman who is in fact a Crane (a large long-legged and necked bird not a piece of industrial equipment) disguised as a human. She plucks her feathers to make silk which she gives to her husband to sell to support them. This makes her increasingly ill and when her husband discovers what she is and what she is doing he tells her to stop. She says she did it for love, he counters that love should exist without sacrifices but his wife responds that he who lives without sacrifices for someone else does not deserve to be with a Crane.
Colin Meloy sets this story to music brilliantly across three songs on this album, “The Crane Wife 3” and “The Crane Wife 1 And 2” (that being the order in which they appear on the album). Originally the album was to begin with “The Island” and end with “The Crane Wife 1, 2 & 3” but it was decided that was too too cumbersome so “The Crane Wife 3” was separated from it’s partners to start things off. I usually add a link to a track from the album in question to these pieces but in this case I’m adding a clip of Colin performing parts 1, 2 & 3 solo, cos it’s ace. Please have a listen.
I’ve mentioned previously that in among the English Folk and Smiths influences The Decemberists definitely have a penchant for Prog Rock and that is ably demonstrated on “The Island: Come and See/The Landlord's Daughter/You'll Not Feel The Drowning”, a 12 and a half minute Prog epic of which Rick Wakeman would be proud . It is split into 3 sections as you can hopefully tell from the title (it was originally written as three separate songs) and the story basically concerns a traveller who sets out to explore a hidden island. While exploring, he meets a/the landlord's daughter who offers him her riches in exchange for release from the island, but he simply “takes” her instead. Once he is done he dreams of laying her in her grave which fills with water while she drowns. Part 1 is set among big, Proggy guitar riffs, Part 2 marked by an intricate keyboard arpeggio which bursts into life part way through before receding back to the keyboard and bursting forth again, and the final section is a gentle folky lament. The whole song feels like a test run for the ideas that will eventually become “The Hazards Of Love”, which we’ll get to soon.
As a side note, all the info I’ve come across RE: “The Island” claim it is loosely based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. True it does contain a reference to Sycorax, an unseen character in “The Tempest”, but after reading Colin Meloy’s latest annotated lyrics on his Substack newsletter “The Machine Shop” it contains just as many references to works by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Dylan Thomas, Bruce Chatwin and various UK Folky types. So the claim about “The Tempest” is tenuous at best, hope that’s settled it for you.
“Shankill Butchers” is an interesting one. When I hear it, it always conjures the atmosphere of gangs like those portrayed in Scorsese’s “Gangs Of New York”, all stove-pipe hats, handlebar moustaches and butchers aprons. It is in reality about a loyalist gang allied to the UVF in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s who were notorious for kidnapping, torturing and murdering civilians. It’s every bit as menacing as it sounds.
“O Valencia” is yer classic Romeo and Juliet type story but set in a quite bouncy and cheery musical setting…yeah, yeah, yeah I hear you mumble, this is all very well but what about dictionary corner ? OK how about arabesque or parallax ? Asteraceae, fontanel and dirigible all make an appearance in the lyrics. Reach for your own dictionary this time.
"The Crane Wife" was also made available as an instrumental album for Promotional purposes, just the backing tracks, and yes I'm that obsessed of course I have a copy of it ! If you are intrigued and need a place to begin with The Decemberists then “The Crane Wife” is quite dense in places but is a great one to start with.
The Crane Wife Parts 1, 2 & 3 - https://youtu.be/aPOMHM6waxk