The term ‘concept album’ is a term that, more often than not, conjures up images of Tommy-esque rock operas and the more dubious aspects of musical pretension. But, in reality, a concept album is any collection of songs connected by a common theme. You could even argue that Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’, when recorded, is a concept album. But if there’s one album that ticks all the concept album boxes whilst retaining its musical integrity, The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife is definitely it.
The process for the album began after the band’s vocalist Colin Meloy read the Japanese folk tale, from which the album bears its name, and decided to begin writing a series of songs around the story. If you’re not familiar with the story of ‘The Crane Wife’ there’s a pretty good summary here. As the material came together during 2005 it was clear there was enough to fill an entire album which was finally released in March 2006. In the end, The Crane Wife ended up being composed of two song cycles, ‘The Crane Wife’ and ‘The Island’, the latter being based on ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare. Although the four songs that make up ‘The Island’ are set as a single track and act as a de facto mini album within the framework of The Crane Wife, they still manage to interlink with the other tracks on the album with the two story arcs complementing each other.
The Decemberists have always managed to instill a great level of authenticity in their music, largely due to their use of traditional folk instruments like the bouzouki and hand organ. The use of instruments like these is amped up on The Crane Wife giving the album an old-timey feel that immerses the listener into the world of pastroal storytelling. The title track, which is split into three parts, outlines the basic story of ‘The Crane Wife’ and differ in tempo and style according to the intensity of the events being depicted. The final part, which is actually the first track on the album, starts the album off with a gloriously powerful combination of acoustic guitar and Meloy’s vocals before ending as a string drenched foot-stomper. It sets a powerful tone that endures throughout the album.
The fact that the main story isn’t told chronologically doesn’t really matter. If anything it invites the listener to use their imagination and piece together their own version of the tale. That’s a level of engagement between the album and listener that’s hard to find and something many albums could do with emulating today. The album cover consists solely of an illustration by Carson Ellis, who also happens to be Meloy’s wife, depicting the major elements of the tale. The fact the cover contains no indication of the artist or title fits with this concept of engaging the listener. If you’re not already familiar with the album you have to pick it up to find out what it is. You have to be engaged to begin the story. The cover also emulates traditional Japanese folk art like Hiroshige and Kano Eitoku. From the opening chords of The Crane Wife Part 3, through the upbeat rhythms of ‘O Valencia!‘ to the exulting refrain of album closer ‘Sons And Daughters‘, The Crane Wife is an album steeped in tradition and musical intelligence that is still relevant today.