Cannon of bombs and nouns

The Decemberists use weighty words and past wars on their latest album “The Crane Wife”

by Michael Garberich

He might not have been awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize in literature last Thursday, but no one in popular music can hold a quill to the verbosity of the lead singer of The Decemberists, Colin Meloy.

As fans of the band know, Meloy’s lyrics and themes have never pandered to major labels looking to discover the trendy, radio-friendliness of so-called indie-sounding rock à la Dashboard Confessional and those ’80s synth rockers gone wrong, The Killers.

“The Crane Wife” (taken from a popular Japanese folktale), is the band’s first album in their fancy new Capitol Records-sponsored threads, and it comfortably reassures the possibility of artistic integrity in the all-too-often compromising music “industry.”

Sigh of relief.

The opener, “The Crane Wife 3,” is the out-of-sequence final chapter to the first of two suites anchoring the disc. It plays like an overture; the guitar is strummed gently, almost reluctantly, and then it picks up the pace with percussion and piano before the crescendo crests with electric guitars in the final 30 seconds.

The first track’s meandering feedback resurges directly into the 12-minute “The Island.” The song starts with keyboard psychedelia right out of the ’60s and ’70s (think Hendrix alone in “Norwegian Wood”), and ends somewhere between “Sympathy for the Devil” Stones and baroque elegy. Yeah, it’s ambitious.

Beyond classic American rock, “The Crane Wife” brings instruments from around the world to create its wide-ranging sound: the bouzouki (Greece), the hurdy-gurdy (Hungary) and the more familiar glockenspiel (Germany).

On “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then),” Laura Veirs lends her voice in a musical dialogue reminiscent of The Postal Service. The difference? Yankee Boynet’s love behest is set out in Virginia and the Carolinas, about, oh, 150 years ago during the Civil War.

Meloy might seem a bit too enamored with the ancient régime of all of history – classical Japan, the Civil War, Godfather era crime and the Shankill, Belfast bombings – but his versatile voice retains this haughty subject matter’s accessibility. He beautifully evokes his subjects’ mood, be it a peasant villager’s lament for his suffering wife on “The Crane Wife 2” or a sailor’s pistol-and-saber armed kidnapping of a landlord’s daughter (you know, “booty”) in the final part of “The Island.”

And, when your lyrics are as literal as “affix your barb and bayonet / the curlews carve their arabesques,” that’s a task not easily accomplished. Neither fish nor barrels abound, just plenty of guns and it’s hit or miss. Yet whatever Meloy’s weapon of choice on a given song (pistols, bayonets, arrows and bombs appear throughout) he’s hitting.

On the disc’s final track, “Sons and Daughters,” a folksy mix of strings, organ and chorus break from the album’s doleful reflection on past tragedies and ventures into the future: “we will arise from the bunkers … here all the bombs fade away.”

Past or future, they’re both tense. But “The Crane Wife” forecasts one thing for the indie veterans’ major label baluster: future perfect.