Since day one, Colin Meloy and his band The Decemberists have had to shake comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel and Belle and Sebastian. But The Decemberists have never matched Neutral Milk Hotel’s brazenness or Belle and Sebastian’s command of melody. Inventive but catchy, giddy but restrained, The Decemberists earn their critical accolades, but have always fallen a tad short of their potential. The band’s major label debut, The Crane Wife, is big, garish, and excessively literate—like the rest of their catalog, only more so. Lyrically, Meloy is still ornate and fanciful (lines like “Affix your barb and bayonet/The curlews carve their arabesques” abound), but The Crane Wife replaces the nautical obsession of their last couple of efforts with a fascination with Victorian murder ballads. The 12-minute-plus song cycle “The Island,” which depicts the rape and drowning of a young girl at the hands of a sea captain, boasts Meloy’s most elegant lyrics to date. But while the musicianship is top-notch, and the band swaps genres effortlessly, the track is bizarrely influenced by heavy metal and prog-rock. The arpeggio from Metallica’s “Unforgiven” is pilfered, as is an organ line straight out of a Rick Wakeman ice-capade. On earlier records and on a number of moments on The Crane Wife, Meloy has shown that he can write a haunting ballad to save his lyrics from sounding cartoonish; “The Island,” on the other hand, is an enormous failure—the pomposity is admirable, but not particularly enjoyable. The rest of the record fares much better: the album’s three titular songs are stunningly beautiful, as is “Yankee Bayonet,” a duet with Laura Veirs. Plus, the band makes fine use of Capitol’s cash: this is the finest recorded album I’ve heard in months. Every accordion squeeze and guitar strum is clear and crystalline. Certain listeners will declare The Crane Wife the best record yet from the Decemberists, but it’s still too inconsistent to be declared the masterpiece of which Meloy and company are capable.
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