I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a music snob. I like obscure bands with esoteric lyrics, so the album “The Crane Wife” by the Decemberists appeals to my elitist taste.
The Decemberists is an indie folk rock band whose songs reference literary and historical events and include an extensive vocabulary.
In Decemberist fashion, “The Crane Wife” consists of tragic narratives about love, death, violence, and criminals. While the lyrics are often somber, the music, which consists of instruments like the guitar, electric organ, accordion, and violin, is oddly upbeat. This keeps the album from becoming too dark.
There are two song cycles on this album. The first consists of “The Crane Wife 1 and 2” and “The Crane Wife 3,” which are based on a Japanese folktale about a man who rescues a crane that turns into a woman. This song’s music and imagery are beautiful.
Some of the literary references on this CD are less obvious, which leaves room for the listener’s interpretation. Another song cycle called “The Island” consists of three songs that may have been inspired by William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.” However, the references are not explicit.
“O Valencia” also has a Shakespearean flavor, as it tells the story of two contemporary star-crossed lovers and the feud between their families. While there is no happy ending for the lovers, the upbeat music keeps this song from seeming cliché.
“Yankee Bayonet,” which is a duet between a woman and a Civil War-era soldier, is also a narrative about love. As the song progresses, it is revealed that the soldier is dead. The music has a Southern folk sound that belies the darker nature of the story.
“Summersong” revels in the singer’s love for a woman. The music is evocative of the feel of summer, but there is still a darker undercurrent to the song; the lyrics mention the lovers on the beach and dead sailors in the ocean.
“Shankill Butchers” is eerie yet strangely mesmerizing. This grim song warns children to obey their mothers or the Shankill butchers will catch them; this is a historical reference to a group of Irish serial killers. The macabre lyrics are accompanied by creepy music and quiet whistling which makes the song sound like a dark lullaby.
“The Perfect Crime” and “When the War Came” are the only two songs that do not stand out on this album, either musically or lyrically. “The Perfect Crime” is about gangster-style crime, but the chorus is incredibly repetitive. “When the War Came” refers to the siege of Leningrad during World War II, but it sounds mediocre.
“Sons and Daughters” is the only song on this album without a darker undertone. The nautical music and optimistic lyrics express the hope of a group of immigrants who plan to travel to a new land and start new lives.
If you are feeling lazy and want to mindlessly listen to music, save this CD for another day. However, if you are in the mood for up-tempo songs about love, violence, death and criminals, that include a panoply of obscure literary and historical references, you might try “The Crane Wife.”