The first four lines that Colin Meloy released as a Decemberist, on 2002's Castaways and Cutouts, are perhaps his most powerful. "My name is Leslie Ann Levine," he sang over a simple guitar strum. "My mother birthed me down a dry ravine/ My mother birthed me far too soon/ Born at nine and dead at noon."
While the words "whimsical" and "literary" have been the adjectives of choice for the Portland pop band throughout the five years of its existence, the truth is that the words "morbid," "vivid" and "complicated" hit closer to the mark. Those words describe "Leslie Ann Levine"—still one of the greatest songs the band has ever put to plastic—as well as describing what made the band stand out in such an unambiguous world of emo posturing and debauched rock. In the twisted, weird world of the Decemberists, the whimsical—the bouncing rhythm of "The Sporting Life," the theatrical costumes, Meloy's faux British accent—sat in comfortable contrast to that which lies beneath, the ugly truth of a world where, when you go to bed, your mom goes out whoring.
The Decemberists' fourth release and major-label debut, The Crane Wife, exists in an entirely different world—for better and for worse. The Decemberists have never sounded better. While they're still able to exhibit some restraint in just the right moments (here on the heartbreaking ballad "The Crane Wife 3" and the cautionary tale—there is always one—"The Shankill Butchers"), The Crane Wife is mostly a revelation of how good these musicians are. On the epic three-song cycle "The Island: Come and See, The Landlord's Daughter, You'll Not Feel the Drowning," keyboardist Jenny Conlee channels Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake & Palmer) and lays down an acrobatic display. On "The Perfect Crime," the band lifts the rhythm of the Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" and turns it into their best pop song ever. The rest of the album blisters with outstanding performances.
And it's a good thing, because—and this is the hard part—Meloy's usual menagerie of oddballs is AWOL on this album, replaced by characters I just don't care about. The album is still rooted in narrative storylines, with the two title tracks, "The Crane Wife 3" (which, oddly, leads off the album) and "The Crane Wife 1 and 2" (which sits second from last), relating an Eastern myth. The story is that of a man who saves a crane from an untimely death, earns the love of the crane (transformed into a human), neglects her and then loses her. It's a beautiful tale, ending with the narrator watching his love fly away: "A gray sky, a bitter sting/ A raincloud, a crane on wing/ All out beyond horizon, oh/ A gray sky, a bitter sting/ And I will hang my head, hang my head low."
Never has Meloy written such a straightforward storyline, and never has his character sounded so common, so bereft of irony, so bloodless. And that continues throughout the album. It's difficult to care about Meloy's inventions when they are so vague that they are more literary ideas than actual living, breathing characters...like poor, dead Leslie Ann Levine.