Like an indie-rock Bob Dylan, Decemberists front man Colin Meloy prefers a mythologized past to an uncertain here and now. While The Crane Wife touches on political and romantic issues, the war songs are set during the Civil War and the broken-down relationships spring from fables. On earlier records, Meloy's nautical references and literary allusions could feel pretentious and distancing, the defense mechanisms of a guy trying to legitimize his folk-pop with arty trappings. But on The Crane Wife, even when you stare down the album's two epic 11-minute-plus song suites, the underlying emotions are the main draw. Indeed, this is the warmest, most moving collection of stories he's assembled, backed up by hooks that recall the timeless pull of ancient ballads. So although layered meanings exist in tracks like "The Crane Wife 3" and "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)," what you first notice are the tenderness of the singing and the bracing, inviting musical accompaniment: acoustic guitars, organs, violins, a lovely glockenspiel. Meloy still populates his tunes with anachronisms (bayoneted soldiers, Romeo-and-Juliet romantic dramas), but he's never sounded so present before.