By Dom Sinacola & Calum Marsh | 3 July 2009
Dragonslayer is a shockingly good record, but it should be no surprise that things ended up this way. Spencer Krug’s been having this conversation with himself for a long time, and what his audience has lost in translation or lucidity he’s made up for with consistency, rolling in all his brainstuff, reveling like Kurt Vonnegut in how literally he can communicate with what he’s created or what he’s pulled wriggling from the void. About this he shrieks.
But far from simply entertaining his diva daydreams, this is Krug with echolalia alone in a cave-like cathedral, bats and shit in the belfries: quoting one’s lyrics and stealing melodies from two albums ago; making tireless prolificacy an allegory for trying to find a muse; for dawdling behind or losing the scent; canonizing a career from a pool of one, then declaring, “You’re such a champion.” There’s a sense in which Sunset Rubdown has from the beginning been Krug’s side- and solo project, which sounds like a slighting because it kind of is, but he only has himself to blame. Krug made a name for himself in 2005 as part of Wolf Parade, who exploded out of Montreal’s red hot post-Funeral (2004) indie community to become scene-defining rock stars. The arms-up reverence with which Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005) was received was at least partly the result of opportune time. Touring with the Arcade Fire certainly had its advantages, and, in any case, Krug had identified himself as a reputable collaborator, an integral and distinctive component of Wolf Parade’s amalgamated whole. His splintering under Sunset Rubdown would come off as essentially digressive—this was a temporary and predictable divergence from what everybody liked to think of as his day job. His real job.
And now it’s taken three years and four albums to fully explore the solipsism Krug’s always craved. That his command is unmistakable across a variety of divergent projects may seem a testament to the force of a singular artistic presence, but not since Snake’s Got A Leg (2005) has Spencer Krug ever been totally by himself in all his self-imposed glory. Here’s a guy, a wobbling, pulsing enigma, who exists wholly within collaborative projects but never really collaborates with anyone. There are four other musicians in Sunset Rubdown, one named Camilla Wynne Ingr who shares prominent, imperative duets with Krug throughout the record, another multi-instramentalist Michael Doerksen, a bandmate seemingly capable of hoisting the band’s leader over his head—but this record review isn’t about them. Those people are utterly behest to Spencer Krug, doing what he wants, when he wants, when he can’t do what he wants.
By now you’ve heard how accessible Dragonslayer is, how it tumbles and whines and tessellates as legibly as it wants. Krug’s always been painted as somehwat confounding, but with Dragonslayer an uncharacteristic restraint, especially after the sprawling catch-all of Random Spirit Lover (2007), amounts to some of the most straightforward material he’s ever had a hand in recording. Maybe he picked it up from the bullies in Swan Lake, learning that restraint can be as easy as being stubborn. Whether operating within that seething conglomerate or the ever-imploding Wolf Parade, Krug emerges with effortless imposition, unopposed in understanding that he has three songs and all three will go exactly as he deigns. Swan Lake isn’t a co-op, it’s a timeshare: isolated within a so-called supergroup, for those three songs Spencer Krug gets to tell Carey Mercer and Dan Bejar what’s up—and Bejar can’t say one goddamn word.
So, the burning question: why “Paper Lace”? At the heart of Dragonslayer is a song Krug had laying around for Swan Lake’s Enemy Mine (2009), but two months later this one has a slightly spryer tempo and complementing warm, equatorial guitars. The differences, at first trite, lean into one another; it’s difficult to pick which version’s better because there’s no drastic re-imagining on Krug’s mind, there’s just a prickly impulse and the egging line “Those were good ideas, but they weren’t diamonds and pearls.” Another “Paper Lace” means more skin for Krug to feel around in, more bumps for him to feel for—and like any hypochondriac Krug’s found nodes and organs on his body enflamed in ways he never knew were possible.
And so a song like “Idiot Heart,” with its conversational boy-girl vocals and stupidly catchy refrain, seems to stretch the limits of his typical songwriting vocabulary—this is still unconventional, unflaggingly crooked, but at the fringe of pop cogency its giddy tone suggests Krug’s finally ready to meet his audience half-way. It’s surprisingly and immediately satisfying, as close as we’ll likely ever get to a Sunset Rubdown summer jam.
Which is something we want. Deeply. A summer jam foretells barbecues, community, anything that could pull Krug from himself, loosen up the chatter pinging around his head. A beast such as “You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II),” though it swerves through itchy strumming and a sweetly whipped guitar-marimba hybrid bleat, encountering at least two climaxes, as with every track on Dragonslayer, has no jitters messing up its flow, nothing but a stream of consciousness finally hitting the air and turning red. “And I’d like to watch the white flash of your heels as they take turns / Breaking the desert heat to beckon me in languages I’ve never learned / I’d like to have you navigate to hills where no musicians live / And on the way decide what ‘bendings’ of your will you’re willing to forgive,” Krug mewls, no longer telling anyone what they are or who they are to him, simply casting out desires to watch them get lost, or unappreciated, or never understood. “And the days add up to weeks add up to months add up to years” and back into that void goes this song.
And really, each of the eight tracks doesn’t challenge this bloodline: subterranean or dirt-clacking percussion is de-sinus’d by a fleeting sense of a riff, of a difficult one, and there are so, so many cymbals. Overtop Krug and Camilla share the struggle to make their voices sound less like each other, more like they were meant to harmonize. Which they weren’t; instead, they sing into each other, as with most of the sounds on Dragonslayer. Melodies enter orifices of other melodies trying to get into the orifices of even more, the swarm of one instance of longing and pushing left to play out in real time. So goes “Dragon’s Lair,” a ten-minute hat doffed to the grand artistic aspiration of knowing it’s “time for a bigger kind of kill.” This could be a joke—this closing track isn’t exactly pulling out a shinier, sharper sword—but it’s exactly the bigger kind of kill Krug knows is nigh, a long, grand opus about not giving up on long, grand opuses. And it has a frankly backwards honky-tonk riff taunting the drama Krug puts his heart into come the coda. “So this one’s for the critics and their disappointed mothers.” Touché.
OK: baby steps. Krug’s still asserting, “I loved it better than anyone else, you know”—and we know. We assume he means music, creating, art, the human grasp for the divine, the things that keep him awake at night, the wonderful image of eating 2,000 butterfly wings and then peering into the smoky glass of a big black van, “wonder[ing] whether or not that shit was empty”; these are the stuffs of his albums we’d always assumed he meant. This is nothing new. But it is, finally, something to share. Perhaps it took half a decade to get here, for Sunset Rubdown to become the solo project it was breach birthed to be and for Spencer Krug to realize an unfettered ego could be the most digestible means to give his audience some slack. To invite them in—a tad. And in that case, Dragonslayer is one of the best albums of the year, as we knew it would be, as Krug told us it would.