As great as The Decemberists' 2005 Picaresque is, the band's real creative breakthrough came a year earlier, on the 18-minute single "The Tain," which integrated Colin Meloy's hyper-literate whimsy into an ambitious yet tuneful song-suite. On the second track of The Decemberists' new album, The Crane Wife, Meloy brings "Tain"-like grandeur to "The Island," a three-part, 12-minute mini-epic that starts out describing a forbidding landscape, and ends up describing the rape and murder that occurred there. The band backs Meloy with an eclectic set of sounds, from pounding rock to synthesizer noodling to stark folk, while Meloy sings in the aloof, alluring voice of evil.
Later on, "The Island" is matched by "The Crane Wife 1 & 2," an 11-minute folktale that springs from Meloy's usual musical base of Britpop, sea chanteys, and Appalachia, yet sounds remarkably unfussy and relaxed. The songs brim with melodic ideas, but the album never overwhelms, because Meloy doesn't try to pack every minute with words and hooks. The songs tend to be peppy, guitar-driven, and spacious, and as easy as cracking an egg.
And that's good, because otherwise, The Crane Wife might be too heartbreaking. The album establishes a tone with its opener, "The Crane Wife 3," a mournful conclusion to the romantic tale told later. Throughout The Crane Wife, Meloy adopts the voices of the dead as well as the voices of their killers, and he sets stories of personal loss against stories that rumble with the explosions of war. On the centerpiece song, "When The War Came," The Decemberists hammer away softly, like a heavy-metal band trapped under a sofa cushion, while Meloy describes how plans go awry when cannons start firing. "When The War Came"—and The Crane Wife as a whole—implies that happy endings are impossible, so long as men with guns and knives still roam.