(The following first appeared on the Lowlands website. I’m publishing it here in its extended form.)
As I briefly mentioned in my previous Throwback Thursday Post, I have a penchant for revisiting a band’s catalogue when they release new music—that is, if I like the band enough. The first time I recall doing this was for the sudden, pay-what-you-want release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows, an album I consider one of my favorites, and may be the focus of a future #tbt writeup if the other Lowlanders don’t beat me to it. I’ve repeated this retrospective several times since— for Radiohead’s not-as-good King of Limbs, the Flaming Lips’ The Terror and most recently Pink Floyd’s The Endless River—and while this can be a very nostalgic and worthwhile endeavor, it can be quite exhausting for bands with such extensive catalogues (like the Lips and Floyd) that, by the time I’ve arrived at the new material, I’m somewhat tired of the band and need a break.
With this in burnout factor in mind, I decided not to start from the beginning of the Decemberists’ catalogue leading up to their new album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, but rather, from my introduction to the band: 2006’s The Crane Wife. Like the watershed Echose, I received The Crane Wife as a Christmas present; unlike Echoes, however, I wouldn’t say Crane was necessarily a profound, like-changing album. But after listening to the album again last week, it was as though I were transported back to Christmas Break ’06, and began to realize how formative The Crane Wife was to me.
Christmas breaks for the University of Montana are ridiculously long (mid-December through the last week of January), and it was during this extended hometown stay my freshman year when this album became my soundtrack. I remember listening to Crane Wife while driving the family minivan on the icy, post-Christmas roads of Billings, which is still pretty much the only thing I do when I’m back home for the holidays. In my winter meanderings, I continually listened to this album, and, once I became familiar enough, began singing the upper harmonies, of which there are plenty here. Little did I know at the time, but singing Jenny Conlee’s and Laura Veirs’ harmonies in my head voice played a fairly important role in my development as a backing singer, which, before this point, I refused to do live in any of my bands (except for my other, other, other, other band Metal Face). Also important to note, “O Valencia” partially served as the melodic basis for “Everybody’s Got Somebody,” perhaps the first song of mine that was both somewhat nuanced and slightly catchy (though its self-revelatory lyrics and inconsistent vocals are a little cringe-worthy for me now; listen to this blast from the past and judge for yourself). But once I returned to Missoula in January 2007, The Crane Wife was replaced by the Shins’ Wincing the Night Away as my indie-album du jour, and though I continued to listen to the Decemberists every so ofter—be it my Picaresque kick the following summer or the respective releases of The Hazards of Love and The King is Dead—I mostly forgot about The Crane Wife until last week.
With a slightly more mature musical sense and renewed desire to listen to the Decemberists, this digital rotation of The Crane Wife revealed some things to me that I either didn’t notice or fully appreciate back in 2006. In addition to the strong harmonies—which I still remembered and sang—I was more aware of the band’s subtle, yet solid musicianship, as heard most explicitly in the twelve-minute, three-part epic “The Island,” whose middle section, “The Landlord’s Daughter,” features a keyboard-guitar interplay reminiscent of early-70s Genesis, which is to say it’s quite elaborate and awesome. And while I’ve always welcomed Colin Meloy’s not-so-Montanan, sea-chanty’s singing accent (which I can say because, like Meloy, I also grew up in Montana, and nobody sounds like that), I didn’t realized how much I truly appreciated its clarity and uniqueness after not having heard it for a couple years. Songwriting-wise, Meloy is on a level that I cannot even hope approach; his archaic vocabulary, clever wordplay and vivid storytelling abilities are wholly distinct and unlike any other modern frontman.
For me The Crane Wife represents everything the band does so well: the sprawling, epic story songs and the catchy, accessible folk songs, all of which possess a 19th Century air to them. The band’s followup, The Hazards of Love, in my opinion, signals a shift a little too far to the former (though it’s still a glorious album), whereas The King is Dead is a bit too safe compared to its predecessors, and, judging by the track lengths of What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, it looks as though the band is staying in the realm of shorter, more accessible/less sprawling songs. But on The Crane Wife, the two spheres of the band are balanced just right.