(Sub Pop; 2006)
By Clayton Purdom | 30 October 2007
An odd one, this. And I’m not just talking about the music, although that counts too. Get this: Spencer Krug tours with Arcade Fire, makes sonic screeds with Frog Eyes, writes a sequence of bleeding anthems for last year’s best Major Indie Album, and then, on the cusp of Isaac Brock-endorsed superstardom, he backs away to work with yet another band.
The fuck? Not an unfounded move, sure, but the quirky ship-hop comes accompanied by an EP filled with odd musical gaps, intentional miscues, shuffling sketchwork, and exceptionally opaque lyrics. That’s what makes this Sunset Rubdown EP so odd — not so much that Krug hasn’t joined Broken Social Scene to release Funeral 2: Die Harder, but because of the uneasy, temporal artistic statement he’s chosen to make instead. Compounding this is the EP’s nightmarish sequencing — reminiscent, perhaps, of some of those early Wolf Parade EPs, but no less jarring because of it. Recent bite-sized treatises by Akron/Family, Keith Fullerton Whitman and even a Krug-backed Destroyer may have spoiled me on EPs, convincing me not only that the abbreviated format could still make a substantial point but that, perhaps, it’s the most effective way to do so. Shit, my two favorite full-lengths from last year (Devin Davis and Edan) barely clocked in over 35 minutes, but both still maintained a uniformity of thought and clarity of message that left most other albums in the dust (Sufjan, I’m gazing dreamily at you). But Sunset Rubdown leaves precisely the opposite impression that those EPs did, one of quivering uncertainty. Oddly enough, it’s this very quality that makes the EP work.
Now, generally, I try to avoid track-by-track analysis, but explaining the above point necessitates it, and this EP’s only fifteen fucking minutes, and you probably won’t end up buying it even though I’m telling you that you should, but you probably will read this review because you’re going to buy Sunset Rubdown’s full-length later in the year, so, uh, for your sake, let’s do this. (Skip two paragraphs if you must, but I promise to be brief.) Let it be noted, future reader, that listening to Sunset Rubdown is an entirely different sonic experience than listening to the full-length, a fact evidenced by the pattering acoustic opener “Three Colours,” a song that manages to be both humane and shrill, like Munch’s Scream. Though the track works into an undead, trancelike fury, it still represent a languorous departure from the full-length’s clamorous clang. “Jason Believes Me, You Can’t Believe Your Dreams” nods toward Apologies to the Queen Mary’s most brutal Krug-penned song, but that track’s muscular scream has been replaced by an abysmal Pet Sounds whimper. The fleeting whistles and squealing strings and thudding drums and whinnying synths — all flittering in and out of the hazy production — sound like an orchestra of vampires attempting to drown themselves in wine. It’s some gloomy shit.
A weirdo intro, a monstrous second song — Krug’s on track for another epic, right? Not so fast. “A Day in the Graveyard” is an upbeat instrumental shuffle, the oscillating tape hiss as important to the accompaniment as the lithe melodic figure that the song traces ad infinitum. Indeed, when “A Day in the Graveyard” skips away after two minutes, one can watch the melody fade into the sun, still dancing in solitude even after the track’s changed. Perhaps this impression is enhanced by its subsequent sequel, which melds a remarkably similar melody to gradual percussion, wistful keys and Krug’s most noble, impassioned vocal performance. Something in the calamitous shake of the final track is spiritually akin to Wolf Parade’s “Wits or a Dagger,” but the major chord verses give the song a dynamism that “Dagger” traded in for bazooka subtlety. After three minutes, it sets into a groove and scampers through the floorboard, evading grasp.
Sunset Rubdown, then, offers no resolution, no violent denouement, no shocking take on a catalogue; what it offers instead is a hint, a headnod toward a curtain that has yet to pulled. The “Graveyard” tracks provide an awkward build-up toward a resolution that obstinately refuses to come. Sunset Rubdown presents the EP as a suggestion, an appetizer, not so much a map but a muddy footprint toward a greater vista. The camera zooms in close, and we see the bugs crawl out of the mud, the cleat’s gristle, the twisted, brittle grass. Sunset Rubdown seems to have no point because of its maddeningly ephemeral nature, but this nature is precisely the point.
What makes this ruthlessly incomplete experience worthwhile are the lyrics, which fit together like five pieces of a much larger jigsaw puzzle. Krug’s nothing if not a modernist, though, and, accordingly, the beauty is in the empty spaces, like the way that the opener’s quiet reiteration “Do you believe that you belong to nothing? / I can’t believe that I belong to no one” is contrasted by the second track’s optimistic “Hold on, hold, hold on.” But within “Jason,” that “hold on” line is first finished by “to the sunburned (?) bones / That mothers hold,” and then, later, by “to the resolute bones / Of sons who roam.” This image, of mothers weeping over dead sons, is alternately played into greater social meaning by Krug’s refrain of “You say you’re gonna die / They say you’re gonna come home” (a painfully truthful sentiment for most males 18-24 these days) and then made explicitly personal with a morality lesson: “Sleep with your eyes open.” Lyrically, the album’s most stunning moment comes on the understated “A Day in the Graveyard II,” which sets the quiet title scene before reaching the EP’s emotional nexus. The narrator of the song declares, while staring at a tombstone, that “When the conductor fucks up / You can’t blame the symphony / So I won’t blame you / If you won’t blame me,” a statement of shocking, crystalline profundity, one that doesn’t shirk its complicity in tragedy but still refuses to let God remain silent in the face of it.
Thematically, some of this might sound similar to Apologies (“God doesn’t always have the best goddamn plans, does He?”), but it only works to prove that Krug is offering a united artistic front. What Sunset Rubdown’s forthcoming Shut Up I Am Dreaming (the title itself a nod toward “Jason” lyrics) represents is Krug’s most personally dictated statement yet, and in these broadstroke thematics it doesn’t disappoint—ladies, e-mail Betz for the lyrics, full of meandering cross-references and crushing imagery. I’ve already trounced my self-imposed 1000 word limit, but, fuck, Krug’s lyrics make it hard not to. For the full-length, the question isn’t whether the lyrics impress — they most certainly do — but if he can pair his sentiments to music with Wolf Parade’s long-term rewards. All of which makes judging this EP hard, because it works as an unfinished component toward a greater whole. The fairest way I can discern is to just judge the view from here: obtuse, frustrating, fleeting, gorgeous and sad, sad, sad.