Several people will probably want to crucify me for saying this, but I greatly, greatly disliked Picaresque. I would go so far as to say that I hate it, except that there are two songs on it that are quite glorious.

The Decemberists: “We Both Go Down Together” (download)
The Decemberists: “The Engine Driver” (download)

These two songs aside, every time I hear a song from that album, it reminds me of the various (better) songs on Castaways & Cutouts and Her Majesty that they’re biting off of. I would attempt to point out these compairisons in detail for you, but these two songs aside, I took Picaresque off of my computer, because I disliked it that much. Not only did it seem like they were just trying to mimic previously successful formulas for their songs, but it was just plain boring. I’m aware of the fact that I’m one of the few that thinks this, so if you’re going to comment just to tell me that you disagree, don’t bother (unless you think you have a particularly compelling argument, in which case, I’d love to hear it).
Part of the reason I feel this way, I think, is because Picaresque was a highly unexpected turn for them after something like the Tain. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Tain is a nearly 20-minute opus comprised of five movements or parts that are all strung together in one track. Yes, it occasionally takes inspiration from classic rock acts like Zeppelin and Floyd, but it’s also the sound of the Decemberists letting their hair down and writing some incredibly unique and beautiful music. The Tain hinted at something unusual and interesting off in the distance. But what we got instead was an album mostly comprised of four-minute pop songs that were clearly designed to be so accessible that they were, in turn, boring (yes, there are songs longer than four minutes, but they too are yawn-tastic). After Picaresque came out, I didn’t listen to the Decemberists for a very, very long time.

When people started talking about the Crane Wife, I couldn’t help but feel hesitant. When “O Valencia” started circulating, I was even more hesitant. Was this all we had to look forward to? Another album of mediocre tracks that don’t hold up to the best of their previous works? Still, the Crane Wife made its way into my hands. The answer(s)? Yes and no.

The biggest difference between the Crane Wife and Picaresque is probably the most important. Picaresque was more designed for the single-song playlist-oriented segment of the market. If you listen to just one song without the context of the entire album, it’s not such a tragedy. In other words, Picaresque is an album by today’s standards. The Crane Wife, however, is an album more fit to the standards of 20-30 years ago. There aren’t a lot of songs that you can cut out of it and just listen to alone. The whole album functions a lot better if you have the whole thing and listen to it all at once. But don’t fret, that won’t stop me from talking about single songs.

The Decemberists: “Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)” (download)

“Yankee Bayonet” holds up with some of the best of the Decemberists’ work. This duet with Laura Viers has everything that attracted people to the Decemberists when they first started. It achieves the same heart-breaking beauty as their quicker-paced ballads like “The Bachelor and the Bride,” or “Here I Dreamt I Was An Architect,” but unlike most of the material off of Picaresque, it isn’t the musical equivalent of throwing a new cover on the same old couch.

Speaking of not throwing a new cover on the same old couch, the Decemberists make a somewhat successful attempt at a style that for some reason makes me think of the Talking Heads with “The Perfect Crime No.2” (The Talking Heads probably isn’t the best example, but they’re the band that comes to mind.)

The Decemberists: “The Perfect Crime No.2” (download)

The first half is, without a doubt, the strongest. The album starts to drag a bit towards the middle-end, but the second half is not without merit. “The Crane Wife 1 & 2” will appeal to fans of The Tain, as will “The Island: Come And See/The Landlord’s Daughter/You’ll Not Feel the Drowning.” Those of you more attached to Picaresque may skip over them, but I beg you to listen to them, and to listen intently. They contain some of the better parts of the album, the last two minutes of “The Island…” especially. Skipping the second half entirely is also a mistake, because “Sons and Daughters” posesses some of the same spirit as Castaways & Cutouts closer, “California Brigade/Youth and Beauty Brigade,” and because listening to the last three tracks all together makes for a filling closing.

The Decemberists: “Sons and Daughters” (download)

Does the Crane Wife show the same level of inventiveness and sprit that Castaways & Cutouts and Her Majesty do? At the best times, yes, at the worst times, no. The back-to-back duo of “When The War Came” and “The Shankill Butchers” is pretty snooze-worthy — but C&C and Her Majesty weren’t entirely flawless, so expecting the Crane Wife to be is asking a lot.

One of the most interesting things about this album is where it leaves our heroes. It seems like they’ve done as much as they can with retaining as much of their original aesthetic as they can. Will they lean more towards a genre make-over, as “The Perfect Crime No.2” hints? Or will they just keep doing what they’ve been doing this whole time? Wondering where they’ll go next is almost as fun as listening to the Crane Wife. Almost.