"The Crane Wife" is, in many ways, a relief to Decemberist fans, in that it's clear that the band haven't dropped their style completely despite a move to a major record label in the US. However, it is clear that there have been some developments in the band's sound and approach, which carries both positive and negative consequences...
The first thing fans will notice about the new album is that the production is much sharper. What is more, the band have begun to broaden their musical outlook with tracks like "The Perfect Crime" and "When The War Came," which sound very different from Picaresque-era Decemberists. It is clear that the Decemberists have incorporated some of the sound they experimented with in their Tain EP into the new album. This isn't a bad move, in many ways, because it's always good to see a band move forward and develop. However, it does mean that the album loses some of that olde-worlde charm that we have come to expect from the band, though it still flairs up on the occasional track ("Shankill Butchers," "Yankee Bayonet"). This means less acoustic, folky, "Eli The Barrow Boy" type numbers, and more tracks with generic indie elements.
The standout tracks on the album are the three parts of "The Crane Wife," which are beautiful, melodic numbers based on a Japanese folk tale; the powerful "The Island" epic in which the band's 'rockier' sound is exhibited; the closing singalong "Sons and Daughters"; and the aforementioned, folky duet "Yankee Bayonet." Colin Meloy's imaginative, intricate lyrics are still present, as are his highly individual vocals. It is good to see the Decemberists have not dropped their emphasis on storytelling, which is one of their biggest appeals. Whilst some tracks take some time getting used to, repeated plays eventually bring you round.
Overall, I wish I could give the album four and a half stars, because it clearly is a good, solid effort with some brilliant tracks, and I really do like it as a big Decemberists fan. I do recommend "The Crane Wife," but suggest that people new to the Decemberists also check out their earlier albums, which are, all in all, superior in my view.