The Ballad of Swan Lake
By Brent Ables | 17 November 2015
I thought I was on the inside…
I recently saw Moonface for the first time at a sandwich shop in Ottawa. We can count it that way if you don’t identify Moonface with Spencer Krug. I don’t. Him, Krug, I’ve seen, and thought I’ve known. I’ve maintained over the last decade the kind of relationship with his music—and that of his British Columbian compatriots, Daniel Bejar and Carey Mercer—that, being grounded in a lack of actual connection, is all retrojection and echo. It’s sustained me more than anything else not subject to gravity.
But Moonface is not Spencer Krug. It’s a mask, maybe even a mask covering a mask, a simulacrum whose own mask is mutability, a mask unmade and remade at will. I don’t know if Krug is the phoenix yet—he has officially ditched the piano, if you’re keeping track—but it was hot in that sandwich shop. I may have even sweated more than him. But I stood up front anyway, wearing my hat a bit looser now, trying to want it enough. Did I learn any secrets? They were in the music, which was fantastic. But the music wasn’t there, with the bodies changing in time. Before the end I went where it was cooler: outside.
…But now I know it’s still a secret…
Q: “Are there any trends that you find frustrating or disappointing? Are there any trends in music today that you find exciting or inspiring?”
Krug: “My initial answer to this question was a long rant about how excited I was to see online music journalism starting to wane. I thought maybe some of the hundreds of blogs were starting to lose some of their dubious credibility…It’s often frustrating to see how music is written about on the internet. There are many nonsensical similes and metaphors that say nothing in particular. There is a lot of writing that is more a showing off of vocabulary than a comprehensible description of what something sounds like; writing that’s more an attempt to make the reader notice the writer, rather than the music…Also, there is often the building up of new acts in an attempt to appear cutting-edge, and then the tearing down of these same acts a year or two later, in an attempt, again, to appear cutting-edge. And in this way, there is a total lack of accountability. Also in this way, there is the championing of originality, but only that originality which falls safely within the parameters set and determined by whichever hundred voices are chattering at the time, agreeing with one another. This demands that artists walk a middle line; be something that can be comfortably yet hiply endorsed, even implicitly discovered, but then later shat upon, safely, if it will make the website look discerning. But this is ‘demanded’ of an artist only if he / she / they are seeking the approval of the online critics. If they are not, then it becomes remarkably easy to be only slightly annoyed now and then, and the rest of the time just say fuck all y’all.
“I know I must sound bitter, but I’m not, not really, not any more than any other musician I’ve talked with on this subject. So much online writing just seems totally irresponsible, and it’s weird that it’s still allowed to happen…What I’m complaining about here affects (and annoys) musicians and readers everywhere. It’s a specific, half-assed, petty type of journalism found online that’s just getting so fucking OLD—across the board. So basically, come on internet—try harder.”
…The three of us together forever in debt…
Pickpocket’s Locket and Poison Season were both released on August 28, the day after that Moonface show. Though I like to entertain myself with thoughts of arcane pacts between Swan Lake alumni, this shared release date is likely a coincidence. These records also mark the first time both artists have significantly integrated string arrangements into their music, MIDI and Your Blues (2004) notwithstanding. The “co-” doesn’t belong in this incidence either, but perhaps it’s not exactly an accident. (“Oh, you’re putting violins on your song? That’s a cool idea, lemme text Krug.”)
Beyond these superficial links, at the level of content, the records have admittedly little in common. If there was ever much cross-musical influence between these two projects—and I would argue that even when they were regularly appearing on the same records circa 2005-2008, there really wasn’t—they have certainly gone on their own paths now. Beyond friendship, whatever binds Bejar and Mercer together in 2015 lies at some other, rarified level. Whiskey and health commutes; darkness and the sublime. Canada.
I’m not going to review these records. To me, these are not artifacts made by animals, or commodities made for consumers, or expressions of the emotions of human beings. They are commandments, writ in stone, and whether I even really like them or not, I live by them. These traces of gods whose names resound with mythopoeic force: KRUG. And did you know “Bejar,” or its etymological ancestor, originally meant “place of the beehives?” That’s a factum straight out of Edward Gibbon’s classic banger, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776). Bejar probably has a dog-eared copy of this volume on the upstairs toilet. But I learned it on Wikipedia, through Google—these are the names of our decline, and our fall.
…I sat down and took a number at the table where death resides…
I am old enough to find myself keenly interested in how these three men age. That might sound callous or superficial; I don’t mean it that way. (As my girlfriend reported after the Ottawa show, Krug in particular has aged quite beautifully.) They age on record; they exist, in time, from song to song, right before our ears. But they do it differently, singularly in each case, and this is what fascinates me. Death is at once what is most universal and most personal to all of us; the more we acknowledge its inevitability, the less we accept its reality. This is why we need art that reaches into that darkness—so that we can greet it, when it comes, as a friend.
Carey Mercer’s own encounters with mortality and its limits have been quite openly documented over the course of his last two albums. Though Mercer himself has been the source of all this information, the way it was discussed in the music press has always made me deeply uncomfortable; I consciously avoided the topic altogether when I attempted to pay tribute to Carey’s Cold Spring, Cokemachineglow’s #1 album of 2013 and the last to ever receive that honor. In his work with Frog Eyes, Mercer talks about himself, and even names records after himself, but he doesn’t often sing about himself. He sings about traitors, addicts, generals, daughters, harpies, donkeys; war, plague, famine, poverty, heartbreak, uplift; transgression, transcendence, transascendence.
Dan Bejar, on the surface, doesn’t seem much concerned with death. He’s the eternal beatnik, eyes and mind on the horizon, with all the proper names it promises. Though Krug has done an admirable amount of exploration under the elastic Moonface moniker, Bejar has always been the truly Protean figure in this crowd. He’s gone from the lo-est of fis to immaculate chamber pop to pub rock to soft-dick rock to, most recently, a kind of nihilist schmaltz that hits the halfway point between Sinatra and “Myrrhman.” Of course, this continuous variation may itself be a kind of flight from death, insofar as it is a formal affirmation of the nature of life itself. But because Bejar never raises this vitality to the level of a theme, I have never felt that, even at its best, his work has the same depth of impact as that of his peers.
Which leaves Spencer Krug. Way back in 2009, Krug gave us indie rock’s greatest extended reflection on aging with the opening triptych of Dragonslayer. “Silver Moons” sets the stage with a kind of melancholy self-send-off: “Maybe these days are over, over now / And I loved them better than anyone else, you know / But I believe in growing old with grace…” Naturally, the theme is explored through Krug’s characteristic flame-language: “Gone are the days bonfires made me think of you / Looks like the prophecy came true / You are a falling tree, I am a falling tree / How old are you?—no, how old are you?” But just as things seem ready to wind down, or settle down, we get the palm-muted rawk of “Idiot Heart.” Here we learn that you can’t, can’t settle down until you’ve raged, raged against the dying of the light…a bit. The song’s placement between “Silver Moons” and “Apollo and the Buffalo…” clearly marks it as an escape, a line of flight, and its drama marks it as a performative affirmation of the very resilience to decay it speaks of. For my part, though, I never found the song very danceable.
This takes us to “Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!”, which is almost certainly the best song ever recorded by Sunset Rubdown. The track begins abstractly, with some of Krug’s most esoteric and evocative imagery: “The buffalo had given up on the world / And Apollo, Apollo is kissing all the valley girls / We climbed up the cross on the mountain on New Year’s Eve / It was just God, the blizzard, the dreamweaver, and me.” And then, out of nowhere, right at the gut: “But my God, I miss the way it used to be.” Anna in this song is deliberately presented more as a symbol than a person, as if to emphasize that when our friends and lovers grow old and apart, all we have left to apply to the fading emotions are shifting names whose sense becomes increasingly irrelevant with time and distance. By the end, Anna’s adoption of a new, unknown name has become a metaphor for the passage of time and the death instinct it portends.
Krug has sometimes been criticized for taking an overly intellectual approach to his music, as if it were more calculation than inspiration, and there may be some truth to this. But at its best, the complicated lyrical and compositional machinery of his massive songs works only to disclose a deep, entirely open emotional wound that would have no significance if approached directly. Just as a great novel will never open with its deepest insight or greatest tragedy, we shouldn’t expect musical catharsis to come easy. Krug understands this so well that when the moments of release do come, they’re both inevitable and cripplingly powerful. And his music hasn’t lost this power in the intervening years, despite Krug’s shift towards a less feral, more domestic aesthetic. Anyone who doubts this should go back and listen to “Daughter of a Dove” from last year’s City Wrecker EP, which contains one of the most astonishing crescendoes in recent musical memory. The song doesn’t say anything profound about death, or God, or mortality. It’s not a conduit to divine truth, or infernal wisdom. It doesn’t say much of anything, really. But it exists, and it transports me completely, and that is exactly as spiritual as I need it to be.
…Borrowed an ascot to cover my eyes from the flame that awaited…
We aren’t where postmodernism was supposed to leave us. The message got mixed somewhere: instead of leading us to the ground so that we could tear it up, semiology took on a life of its own, and we forgot to forget the simulacrum isn’t actually real. Thus was born a society that lives entirely on the surface. Hierarchy being abolished, only a binary decision remained: balance yourself on the surface, present yourself as a surface, or fall off the edge of the new, two-dimensional earth. But on a surface, points are distinguished only by location, and above all not through the relative displacement of evaluation. Thus was born a historically unprecedented critical ethos: Everybody likes everything.
I’m not myopic enough not to understand that there are very good sociopolitical reasons for the unconditional affirmation of diversity in art. But of course, affirmation is never unconditional; there’s always an Other, even when the Other is brought home. And so we end up in the odd situation that the least acceptable thing for a critic to do is present reasons for liking or not liking an artwork that have nothing to do with the identity of the artist in question. Nor does this apply only to critics; on the contrary, when Pitchfork interviewed Bejar prior to the release of Poison Season, it was Bejar who found himself in the awkward position of questioning whether Taylor Swift’s music really deserves the attention and adulation it’s gotten from the same people who, a generation ago, eschewed Madonna for the Pixies. I’m not interested in ragging on Pitchfork—they’ve done more than other entity on earth, including us, to promote the careers of these guys—but it’s hard not to smile at the interviewer’s blithe response to Bejar’s speech: “Do you ever worry about being out-of-touch?”
Far be it from me to put Bejar or anyone else in the position of spokesman for something they’d rather avoid talking about altogether, but: bless the out-of-touch. There is entirely too much touching today. We’re all packed into the same small venue called the internet, the stage is a mirror, the mirror is a body, and the body is ours—can we not still empty it of organs? The body wants to be its own; why put the body where the body don’t wanna go?
If we trace a spherical surface to its genesis, all points converge in a singularity. The center of the earth is the center for everyone. This is the only danger of unchecked disjunctive affirmation: we forget that we are all human beings, whatever else we might be. Our fires burn at different intensities—but at death, as our souls rise like burning shades of light, is it not the same point to which we ascend? We need art that gives that light shape, and lets it speak for all of us at once, in the same voice. In Mercer’s shrieking guitars, Krug’s baroque epiphanies, and the bittersweet paradoxes of Bejar’s finest koans, I feel something slip from beneath the surface that I want to believe every person can feel, and should have the chance to feel. But I no longer have any idea whether this is my own ground rising to the surface, or me sinking into the depths, and the light fades either way.
…Now these beautiful days just seem dated…
I don’t really go to shows much anymore. My brief, weird tenure as an online music critic is over at the end of the year. I’ve listened to maybe twenty albums this year, and liked about seven of them. The quality of my speakers? Poor.
But still, I’m glad I made that Moonface show at that sandwich shop in Ottawa. It was not particularly memorable for what it was—certainly not as memorable as Wolf Parade in 2005, or Sunset Rubdown in 2007. But I think maybe those days are over, over now. Memory has a way of closing up as you get older, so you have to select what matters and keep it close. If I remember this concert in a year, it likely won’t be for the songs that were played, or the length of Krug’s hair (long!), or even the fact that I managed to drag along my girlfriend’s entire family, thus contributing more substantially to the man’s career than I probably have ever done with all these thousands of stupid words on the internet.
What I will remember was just how excited Spencer Krug seemed to be playing music to the 40 or so people in that small, hot room. Because if there’s still music left for him to create, and me to love, then neither of us are entirely spent. And if this means only, minimally, that our mutual self-spending can continue a little longer, then one can learn to take this as enough. All fires have to burn.