“Perfect Crime #2” / The Decemberists
Any group that names themselves after a group of 19th-century Russian revolutionaries gets my vote. I’ve only heard the Decemberists’ most recent album, The Crane Wife, but it was clear from the first listen that it was gonna grow on me. True, I detect a smidgeon of art-student pretension to this Portland, Oregon, band, but so long as the music holds up, that’s okay by me. They seem to have a droll sense of humor that saves them from getting too caught up in their own literary construct.
The Crane Wife definitely tells a story, though I haven’t yet pieced it together in detail – songwriter Colin Meloy says it was inspired by a Japanese folk tale, but several of the songs (including this one) are tangential to that narrative. Still, you instantly pick up its haunting folk ballad quality, full of battlefields and ghosts and dire omens and tragically parted lovers, and they pull it off with real conviction.
“The Perfect Crime” is prime Decemberist material: dark minor-key melody married to a driving pop beat; cryptic, poetic lyrics in the verse, returning to a chorus with a mesmerizing hook. In this case, the refrain is simply “It was a perfect, a perfect, a perfect, a perfect crime,” with “perfect” hopping around to different intervals as the chords shift darkly around it. (The last time around, “perfect” is teasingly repeated 32 times before they finally end the sentence.) If this song were a silent movie – and it practically is already – it’d be in sepia and white, with lots of close-ups and very few title cards.
If you’re an English major geek like me, you’ll get the classical reference in the first line, an echo of Homer’s Odyssey – “Sing muse of the passion of the pistol / Sing muse of the warning by the whistle / On a night so dark in the waning / A dawn obscured by slate sky raining, oh oh.” I’m already looking warily over my shoulder. Now we get suspenseful quick-cut shots of danger: “Five and twenty burglars by the reservoir / A teenage lookout on the signal tower / The mogul’s daughter in hog ties . . . The bagman's quaking at the fingers / The hand-off glance a little lingers / A well-dressed man in the crosshairs / A shot rings out from somewhere upstairs.” Alfred Hitchcock would have loved this.
No matter how perfect this crime is, you just know they’ll get caught in the end, thanks to that minor key, the reverberating echoes of the vocals, the downward spiral of the melody, and the relentless rhythm. Sure, there’s a guitar solo between verses that breaks free like a getaway car – but let’s face it, getting caught in the end is required film noir tradition, isn’t it?
So it’s not about teenage love, or the war in Iraq, or how the lead singer gets depressed on Sunday mornings. I believe we have plenty of other songs about those things. The only other number that even remotely reminds me of this delicious track is Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives,” and you know how much I love that song. Bravo, Decemberists!
Perfect Crime #2 sample