Escape Artists

When parents don't pay Mary what she's owed, the Poppins Gang comes to collect: The Decemberists
Autumn deWilde

The Decemberists
The Crane Wife

Bet you a farthing Colin Meloy knows how to turn an old newspaper into a pirate hat. It's a standard trick for boy adventurers: Turn the top of the paper down, folding it in half, and then bring each upper corner down diagonally to the low front center point before creasing a bit of brim into the bottom edge. Meloy probably also has a knack for forging swords out of discarded pieces of crown molding and repurposing rotting wooden pallets into fortresses. I'm no detective, but you can infer certain things about a man's childhood when, album after album, he turns out lyrics like, "I produced my pistol, then my saber/Said 'Make no whistle or thou will be murdered!'"

This warning begins a rape scene in The Crane Wife, the latest release from Meloy's Portland-based band, the Decemberists. (Not to be confused with the Decembrists, that group of Russian army officers whose failed 1825 revolt was punished with Siberian exile. In noble solidarity, many of their spouses followed them into that frozen wasteland, giving rise to the expression "Decembrist wife," which you have no doubt heard, oh, zero times in your life, Minnesotans not being particularly attuned to acts of Russo-conjugal loyalty and self-sacrifice.) Meloy's Decemberists are less songwriters than they are yarn-spinners, and soldiers, criminals, orphans, maiden-defilers, and defiled maidens are the band's stock-in-trade. Meloy often sings in the first person, but while his narrator's "I" might refer to "I, the ghost of the infant killed that night," or "I, the botanist who starved to death during the siege of Leningrad," it never, ever refers to "I, Colin Meloy." The Decemberists turn works of short historical fiction into pop songs; they have no interest in blabbing about their feelings toward their friends or their last relationship breakup. Although they are from Portland, they decline to emote.

Of The Crane Wife's 13 tracks, seven songs stand on their own, while six others are chapters in song cycles. The three parts of "The Island" detail the above-mentioned rape, while the titular "Crane Wife" trio retells a Japanese folktale. Twelve-minute songs are a downside to Meloy's ambitious attempts to realize his vision (a statement I make despite my respect for "The Tain," a 20-minute single the band put out a few years ago that retold an ancient Celtic poem about the consequences of cattle-rustling). The world of the Decemberists is unsafe; the lucky ones die, while the unlucky ones sit through overlong epics.

Fortunately, the band is more than just Meloy's imaginative lyricism. The Decemberists' all-stops-pulled-out-for-opening-night live performance won my friends and me over long before we caught on to Meloy's odd affection for words like "parapet" and "catacomb." Besides guitarist Meloy, new drummer John Moen, and bassist/cellist Nate Query, the band has an eclectic miniature orchestra in musicians Jenny Conlee and Chris Funk. Is there a sound that exists beyond the reach of their repertoire? Can I answer that question by pointing to the words "hurdy-gurdy"? Meloy could bleat lyrics about quilt-making and peach-canning if he wanted to—the Decemberists still wouldn't sound like a folk band. By weaving wind chimes and Wurlitzers and cello strums and castanet clicks through typical pop arrangements, the band is able to evoke 75 percent of all known exotic experiences, from fog-imperiled ship-dockings to silk-fan-abetted Geisha-assignations.

Meloy grew up in Helena, Montana. His lyrical vocabulary suggests that his childhood home was in fact a military antiques store, although I have little evidence to support this suspicion. Landlocked, peaceful, and remote, the Helena of '80s hair-metal must have been the exact opposite of the romantic world of seaports, sieges, and star-crossed lovers Meloy would one day create. In a way, the preciousness of his world is like that of filmmaker Wes Anderson. Both celebrate criminals and fortune-seeking misfits, both savor eccentricities, and both favor an ironic, literary tone that sterilizes actual human experience to create a stylized, museum-quality version of the real thing. By curating the everyday and humdrum out of their vocabularies, these artists liberate weary middle-class kids from the sheer ordinariness of life in America, shepherding them off to a world of richer textures and brighter colors.

Doomed lovers are staple characters in the Decemberists' repertoire, and their tribulations are at the heart of some of the best songs from the new album. "Yankee Bayonet" is a sweet, lively dialogue between a dead soldier and his pregnant girlfriend; think of it as a Cold Mountain for the winning team. There's little inherent gift in Meloy's narrow-ranged singing voice, so the rare addition of a female vocalist (Carleton College alum Laura Veirs) is welcome. Another standout is the thwarted elopement tragedy "O Valencia!" With an upbeat, singsong cheer and happy pop-rock energy, the narrator recounts his love's demise in a kind of anti-lament. "Valenci-a-a-a!/With your blood still warm on the ground/Valenci-a-a-a!/I swear to the stars I'll burn this whole city down," he sings, sounding like he's actually closer to buying the whole city a round of drinks than destroying it.

A few times an album, the Decemberists relax their (awfully beguiling) shtick and unleash lush, California-sunny, accordion-tinged tunes like The Crane Wife's "Summersong." (Okay, "Summersong" does contain a single mention of "dead sailors," but it's probably a mandated part of their recording contract by now). "My girl, linen and curls/Lips parting like a flag all unfurled," serenades Meloy, sounding more like a Beach Boy than a bombardier. Simple, loose-limbed delights like this prove that the Decemberists are much more than the primary suspects in a rash of pickpocket incidents and jewel heists along their tour route. They're a group of bona fide indie rockers who ran away to form an itinerant theater troupe—and who might discover, three hours after driving out of Minneapolis, an escaped music critic and her trained dancing bear hiding hopefully in the very back of their tour bus.

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