Forget Port of Miami — when it comes to tales of illicit sex, pillaging, and overall wanton behavior, Rick Ross has nothing on Colin Meloy. Over the course of his Portland band’s ten-track fourth album (their first since departing indie Kill Rock Stars), Meloy uses an ancient Japanese folktale about a fallen bird as a loose storytelling framework and kicks poetic, often interlocking rhymes about lovelorn soldiers and gun-toting rapists. His verses are sharp and smart (“It was like a ticker-tape parade / When the plastique on the safe was blown away”), though a bit scholarly. Unless you’re up on your ornithology, Wife is likely the only major-label release of the year to require referencing Dictionary.com.
The Decemberists have always exploited the loosely defined rubric of “indie pop,” adorning their astute sense of melody with sea shanties and accordion dirges. And Wife expands even further: “The Perfect Crime #2” has a light touch of ’70s disco-soul, and the 12-minute, three-part “The Island” breaks into a proggy keyboard blitz.
It helps that this is the best-sounding Decemberists record to date. Producers Chris Walla and Tucker Martine give the band a crisp directness, with none of the preciousness that often plagued the group’s earlier releases (they also, thankfully, de-nasal Meloy’s vocals). Unapologetically nerdy, The Crane Wife will draw a few sneers for its bookstore-rock tendencies, but considering the times we’re living in, getting lost in the bookstore doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.