Wednesday, 6 November 2013

An Ode to: 'The Crane Wife', The Decemberists (2006)

(Photo: Atef Safadi)
“Without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is.”

-          Edna St Vincent Millay

In which I pay tribute to bands/artists/albums that have had a significant impact in my life.

Meaning is ubiquitous (at least in the human world), and the meaning we ascribe to music is strongly connected to the events, thoughts and emotions at the time of listening, remembering, and re-listening. Often I’ll hear a tune I’ve not heard in some time, and remember with acute detail what it was I was doing or feeling in a past moment/a collection of moments. Sometimes the recall will favour singular events or milestones, while at other times it will just be an impression, a brushstroke. Sure enough, neuroscientists have studied the connection between the brain and music, with evidence suggesting a link between and the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine (generally), and in the anticipation of key musical moments. Almost a century prior, Proust waxed eloquence about the power of memory and music in his seven-volume opus, ‘In Search of Lost Time’, which I shall leave here in its entirety for your reading pleasure -

“The year before, at a soirée, he had heard a piece of music performed on the piano and violin. At first, he had experienced only the physical quality of the sounds secreted by the instruments. And it had been a keen pleasure when, below the little line of violin, slender, unyielding, compact and commanding, he had seen the mass of the piano part all at once struggling to rise in a liquid swell, multiform, undivided, smooth and colliding like the purple tumult of the waves when the moonlight charms them and lowers their pitch by half a tone. But at a certain moment, without being able to distinguish an outline clearly, or give a name to what was pleasing him, suddenly charmed, he had tried to gather up and hold on to the phrase or harmony - he himself did not know which - that was passing by him and that had opened his soul so much wider, the way smells of certain roses circulating in the damp evening air have the property of dilating our nostrils. Maybe it was because of his ignorance of music that he had been capable of receiving so confused an impression that is, however, perhaps the only one which is purely musical, immaterial, entirely original, irreducible to any other order of impression. An impression of this kind, is for an instant, so to speak, sine materia. No doubt the notes we hear then tend already, depending on their loudness and their quantity, to spread out before our eyes over surfaces of varying dimensions, to trace arabesques, to give us sensations of breadth, tenuousness, stability, whimsy. But the notes vanish before these sensations are sufficiently formed in us not to be submerged by those already excited by the succeeding or even simultaneous notes. And this impression would continue to envelop with its liquidity and its "mellowness" the motifs that at times emerge from it, barely discernible, immediately to dive under and disappear, known only by the particular pleasure they give, impossible to describe, recall, name, ineffable - if memory, like a labourer working to put down lasting foundations in the midst of waves, by fabricating for us facsimiles of these fleeting phrases, did not allow us to compare them to those that follow them and to differentiate them. And so, scarcely had the delicious sensation which Swann had felt die away than his memory at once furnished him with a transcription that was summary and temporary but at which he could glance while the piece continued, so that, already, when the same impression suddenly returned, it was no longer impossible to grasp. He could picture to himself its extent, its symmetrical groupings, its notation, its expressive value; he had before him this thing which is no longer pure music, which is drawing, architecture, thought, and which allows us to recall the music. This time he had clearly distinguished one phrase rising for a few moments above the waves of sound. It had immediately proposed to him particular sensual pleasures which he had never imagined before hearing it, which he felt he could be introduced to him by nothing else, and he had experienced for it something like an unfamiliar love.”

Really, this exercise is just an excuse to bottle these feelings in relation to the music of my formative years, because for some reason I’m always afraid of them losing their relevance.


The first in this feature is ‘The Crane Wife’, the 5th full length album by Indie-Folk band The Decemberists. The album is bookended by two story cycles – the titular ‘Crane Wife’ based on a Japanese folk tale and Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’.

Opening with ‘The Crane Wife 3’, the narrator’s lament sets up the album’s themes of loss, exploitation and regret. For the uninitiated, the Decemberists’ version of the ‘Crane Wife’ folk tale sees a poor man struggling through a cold winter, who happens upon a bloodied crane on his doorstep. The man takes the crane in and tends to its wounds, and the crane flies away upon being healed. Later, a woman appears at the man’s doorstep and the two fall in love and marry. Still desperately poor, the wife offers to weave silk cloths to make a living, on the condition that the man never watches her weave in her loom room. As they gain more money, greed takes hold and the man demands that the wife weaves more and more only to realise – too late – that his wife/the crane had been using feathers from her own skin as thread. When the Crane Wife sees the man spying on her, and thus breaking his promise, she flies away, leaving the man desolate, broken and remorseful.  

The ninth track of the album, ‘The Crane Wife 1 & 2’ returns to the tale, and as the song title suggests, re-tells the story from the beginning. The effect of which provides a certain circularity to the album, moving seamlessly from open lament (“And I will hang my head / hang my head / hang my head low”), hope (“All the stars were crashing ‘round / as I laid eyes on what I found”) and retrospective guilt (“All I ever meant / to do / was to keep you”). The intervening songs do not quite match the heights of the ‘Crane Wife’ narrative, musically or otherwise, including the ambitious 12 minute prog-rock influenced track, ‘The Island: Come and See / The Landlord’s Daughter / You’ll Not Feel the Drowning’, telling the chilling tale of rape and murder in a way arguably only Colin Meloy could ("I spied in sable / The landlord's daughter / Produced my pistol, then my saber / To make no whistle, or thou will be murdered!").

Traditionally, I’ve glossed over the other tracks, and although the backdrop of war in songs such as ‘Yankee Bayonet’ and ‘When the War Came’ do provide a cohesive whole to the themes of loss and love, they’ve always fell flat for me. An exception is album closer, ‘Sons & Daughters’ with the swell of “Hear all the bombs fade away” recalling the cathartic kind of hope perhaps only possible following the kinds of horrors and atrocities explored on the album.      


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