The second track of their October release, The Crane Wife, is 12-and-a-half minutes long. That track, titled “The Island,” as well as the album’s bisected title track (which combined totals 15 minutes, 37 seconds), are each comprised of three movements. There’s a serial killer lullaby, a “Cold Mountain”-esque duet in the form of “Yankee Bayonet” and a track about a Ray Bradbury-style caper gone awry. Broadly speaking, those aren’t the kinds of tunes you expect to find on a “big-label” album, but those are the bookish topics for which the Decemberists were known before and they reprise themselves here. The biggest change for the band since coming to Capitol? For once the opening track isn’t in the key of E. But that’s just who The Decemberists are — more English professors than pop stars.
“I’ve always valued music that works beyond the surface level,” frontman and songwriter, Colin Meloy, says. “I do think people are smart.”
It seems like a simple truth, but it’s been one all-too-hastily ignored in the quest by record companies to broaden their market and cater to the lowest common denominator of the MTV generation. But bands like The Decemberists, also comprised of Nate Query, John Moen, Jenny Conlee and Chris Funk, are different. As Meloy told Rolling Stone in an Oct. 19 article, this band is an experiment. True, it’s been a highly successful one, one that has proven an intellectual band, whose albums demand active listening, can be commercially successful (they sold 125,000 copies of 2005 release Picaresque under the Kill Rock Stars label). But it is an experiment nonetheless.
Meloy’s true love has always been for writing. At school in Missoula, Mont., he wrote music as a side project, a slight diversion from his true love of creative writing. In truth, he only wrote it for himself, though, as Meloy theorizes, that could be one of the reasons why his songs have been so successful.
“With all due respect, I don’t really make songs for the fans and what they want,” Meloy says. “I think music is best if it’s for yourself. When you start changing your voice to appeal to what you think your constituency is, then you lose the genuineness.”
However, as his music began to take off, Meloy’s side project became his main act and his other writing was temporarily shelved. Eventually, Meloy wants to fall back into the literary trade and he’s working on a children’s book with his girlfriend, illustrator Carson Ellis, who also supplies the drawings for The Decemberists’ albums.
“We just finished a draft,” Meloy says. “At first it was challenging, but in treating it as a song, it felt a little bit easier, giving it a rhythm and so forth.”
In the meantime though, fans craving Meloy’s writing will have to be content with his music, which itself contains no shortage of material for literary dissection and interpretation.
The album is full of quaint contractions like “you’ll not,” and post-noun descriptions like “our shoulders wide and timber long,” further enhancing the period-piece feel. The album’s diction (the words “asteraceae,” “arabesques” and “parallax” can all be found on the album) is as obscure as the instruments (bouzouki, hurdy-gurdy, hammered dulcimer and glockenspiel) that accompany it, and the combination paints a fantastic scene you won’t (er … you’ll not) find anywhere else on the musical landscape.
The epic second track, “The Island” begins with a description of an idyllic landscape, which becomes the scene of a rape and a murder in the second and third movements. “When the War Came” paints a grim picture of the siege of Stalingrad in World War II. Title track, “The Crane Wife,” whose third part was actually lopped off to serve as the opening track, was inspired when Meloy came across the old Japanese folk tale in a bookstore several years ago.
“I guess it’s just the way I’m wired,” Meloy says of his attraction to fantasy. “There are those that write on headlines and that’s something I could never do.”
For all the academic inflection, The Crane Wife doesn’t come across as some sort of collegiate lecture. The prog-folk, rock sounds ensure of that. The poppy “O Valencia!” and groovy “The Perfect Crime #2” both fall into the “windows down” listening category. Even the more cranial tracks serve as enjoyable listening, which is what makes The Decemberists such a find.
Sure, you can settle for easily-produced ear candy. But if you want something more, with the Decemberists, the option is out there.
• The Decemberists play 9:30 Club Sunday, Oct. 29 and Monday, Oct. 30. Both dates are sold out.