Opening a small band up to a large audience is tricky. Finding the balance between maintaining one's artistry and reaching out to a specific demographic often results in failure on some level.
I've discussed this in the past, specifically regarding Death Cab For Cutie's Plans and Snow Patrol's Eyes Open. Neither album is a failure, but neither lives up to their bands' promise. Plans is a fine album, but it departs from Death Cab's rock background, instead aiming for the soft-pop audience that somehow connected Ben Gibbard to a soundtrack he was entirely uninvolved with (Garden State). Eyes Open, meanwhile, is okay, but more significantly it marks Snow Patrol's bid to become the official band of the now-defunct Dubba-Dubba-WB. Common to both is increased prominence for their lead singers' voices, as compared to the backing music; this works in neither case. There's an instinct to emphasize global components (words, the vocal hook) when that might not be the right decision. Point being that bands typically seem to seek fame by moving away from what put them in position to become famous.
On that front, I have good news. I was lucky enough to hear The Decemberists' major-label debut, The Crane Wife, recently. I cannot stop listening to it. It's their best work to date... from start to finish, a home run. (Oh, the sporting life.) Colin Meloy and company have taken their pretty, quaint, firmly-entrenched-in-a-niche sound and made something a) broad, b) consistent with previous Decemberists albums, and c) more focused than any of their other works. It's the kind of album a band makes at its absolute peak. It is all the things for The Decemberists that Plans and Eyes Open are not for Death Cab and Snow Patrol.
I'm genuinely stunned that they made this album, that they are the band that achieved the balancing act. Their bread-and-butter, to date, has been sea shanties and tragic period romances. The band has always served as a backup act to Meloy's vocabulary-soaked, letter-R-deficient tales of Barrow-boys, Chimbley Sweeps, and giant Whales. The music thus takes on a mood to match the lyrics, suggesting a band of traveling minstrels rather than a rock group. Her Majesty and Picaresque are perfect albums in their own way, but they are also exceedingly quirky, to the point where they almost demand an apology. I would never have guessed that they'd zip it up and make such promising music. Congrats to everyone in the band, as well as producer Chris Walla (who also produced S.A.C. whipping-boy Plans).
The key difference is that The Crane Wife seems to have a musical axe to grind. The primary objective is to showcase the band's musical ambitions and arrangement skills, not to showcase Meloy and his thesaurus. "The Perfect Crime #2" is a Steely Dan homage first, and a story of blackmail and double-crossing second. The allegorical tale of invasion, colonialism and rape in "The Island" takes a back seat to an impenetrable wall of prog-rock keyboards. On Picaresque, that wall would be made of accordions and bass viols, and Meloy's voice would have been more prominent in the mixing process. Instead, they appear to have taken up the torch for historically-themed folk-prog-rock from Jethro Tull. Having heard the finished product, it really, really works.
(Those two bands aren't very dissimilar, when you think about it. Especially when you examine their respective lyrical tones. Many people will assert that prog-rock was a departure for The Decemberists; those people should listen to Thick As A Brick and The Minstrel In The Gallery a few times before saying that stuff. The more I think about it, the more natural the progression feels.)
The other half of the equation, making the musical spotlight possible, is the restraint/focus that Meloy shows in his storytelling. He's one of the most gifted songwriters on the planet, but part of the risk involved with his earlier works is his penchant for indulgence. There is nothing as precious as "The Chimbley Sweep," as whimsical as "Billy Liar," or as alliterative and thesaurus-heavy as "Los Angeles, I'm Yours." (Which is a personal favorite of mine.) Some have commented that this is a sign of weakness as compared to Picaresque, but I think the opposite. I think it's a sign that after some experimentation, all of which was successful, they are forging a path that works.
But while The Crane Wife is somewhat of a departure, it's still a Decemberists album. It's not going to disappoint and perplex longtime fans of the bands (save they who bee Pirates, yarrrrrr). Their trademarks are still present... just not focal. And that's one of the marks of a great band... the ability to move in a new direction without abandoning what that made them famous to begin with.
In short, while it doesn't have the consensus-winning appeal of an album like Come On Feel The Illinoise!, it's a perfect example of a band taking its shot at stardom and knocking it out of the park. You have to appreciate these instances when they come up. So, hats off to The Decemberists. We'll celebrate again when I buy the album.
[Edited 7:04 for typos & rewording.]