I've always been back and forth on the Decemberists

On previous albums, Colin Meloy's theatrical period pastiches have delighted and frustrated in equal measure, sounding notes of forced pathos as often as historical evocation. But I have no such reservations about The Crane Wife, where the pretensions that sometimes marred the earlier work have burned away, revealing an expansive cinematic opus with recurring themes and tripartite song suites (insofar as the Decemberists deserve their frequent Neutral Milk Hotel comparison, this is their In the Aeroplane Over the Sea) and a newfound lyrical directness that finds Meloy focusing more on drawing the resonance from his subject matter than cobbling together as much antiquarian argot as possible. Atmospherically, "Shankill Butchers" most resembles Decemberists songs like "Eli the Barrow Boy" -- sparse, haunting laments that put Meloy's knack for poignant melodic phrasing, not baroque language, on prominent display. Like all the songs on The Crane Wife, "Shankill Butchers" seems to unfold across a sprawling, foggy screen, each image iconic and radiant in its lucidity. While the Shankill Butchers are real, you wouldn't know it from the song: Meloy excises the Irish terrorists/serial killers (whose atrocities were so extreme as to surpass the political and enter fantastic realms of abstract, unfathomable malevolence) from our shared reality, remaking them as the boogeymen the rational mind needs them to be. In imagining the Shankill Butchers as wraithlike figures from morality tales to frighten disobedient children, tip-toeing around the grim deeds with images of preparation and aftermath, Meloy makes it possible to consider them at all: the mind shuts down at the thought of a man shoving shards of beer-bottle glass into another's head for vague political reasons, so we're left to consider the nature of violence itself: sudden, random, mythologically inexorable, and too often premised upon superstition and ideology.