It had to happen some time. Eventually, the Decemberists had to release an album unable to improve upon its predecessor. With The Crane Wife, the band has finally succumbed to this unfortunate fate.
Over the span of three full-length albums and a couple EPs the Decemberists' sound gradually strengthened, reaching its pinnacle on last year's Picaresque. While the culmination of this progress left most who heard it slobbering, it left the band with two options: change and risk the stumble they'd always avoided, or continue in their comfort zone at the expense of progress. On The Crane Wife, front-man Colin Meloy and his cohorts did both.
On about half of the album the Decemberists explore the bizarre, prog-rock sound they previously visited on the 2004 EP, The Tain, in an attempt to broaden their palette. Unfortunately, most of these experiments with bombast and power-chords come across awkwardly. The Tain's playfulness made it a pleasant listen, as if the band knew it had no place mimicking Deep Purple and Iron Butterfly, but didn't care. The Tain was an odd and enjoyable diversion in the band's catalogue, but no one was upset when Picaresque showed up riff-free. Now these forays into classic rock just distance the songs from Meloy's evocative, intimate lyrics, which have always been the Decemberists' greatest strength.
The rest of the album is the standard folk-pop fans are accustomed to. There are a handful of good songs, but they lack the emotional pull of the band's greatest moments.
The Crane Wife isn't a bad album, it simply doesn't hold up to its predecessors, becoming the Decemberists' first unremarkable offering.