Sunset Rubdown

Random Spirit Lover

(Jagjaguwar; 2007)

By Alan Baban | 13 January 2008

What to make of Spencer Krug? He is, let’s not forget, a songwriter of startling power, a weaver of tales, a practitioner in the art of holding a note. He plays instruments. He makes music and we listen. At CMG, we listen to Krug pretty intently.

The really special thing about Spencer, though, is how he takes this talent and transcends it, disappearing into the geography of his songs till his presence is no longer felt, but implied. The oeuvre of this guy is one big vanishing act. It’s also — frogs, wolves and swans — as completely and consummately his as it is completely and consummately the work of whichever band he’s working with. Take another listen to Beast Moans (2006) or Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005) and hear how he sets up box for whoever he’s writing with: the sharp emotional core he brings to Boeckner’s material, or the way his luminous, freezing keys encase “City Calls,” leaving Mercer to drift ether-wise.

But since Sunset Rubdown is just Krug, it’s always felt more personal. When he disappeared into the landscape we could assume that the landscape represented him, at least moreso than on other records. This has changed, somewhat. Random Spirit Lover is the third Sunset Rubdown album but the first to be effectively impacted by every element of the band: the record feels full, stuffed with exciting jigsaw synths and restless percussion, melodic parts that are independently random but brought into high relief and sharp focus by their wild transitions, the mad coincidence of their juxtapositions.

Much of the music is exhilarating, throwing simple motifs into a tailspin of cunning and aloof creativity, the big picture pale then bright, flickering amid the intimate flux of its thousand and one particulars. “Up On Your Leopard” pounces over the coals of a highly strung martial-step, the divergent elements of “Setting Vs. Rising” are traced backwards into a formless corner. Better still is the spectral dissonance of “Trumpet, Trumpet, Toot, Toot!,” where howling vocals hang poignant over immersive, lattice-like drumming, or the brilliant guitar figure that half-steps its way into “The Mending of the Gown,” as if it were hacking out a design.

Yes, the songs on Random Spirit Lover are unmistakably Krug compositions, every lithe lyric and hair-brained half-melody reaching for the difficult emotional culs so effectively breached on last year’s breakthrough Shut Up I Am Dreaming. The pleasing directness of that record’s compositions, though, has been replaced by a vague penumbra, something indistinct and almost tenuous. Only the Daytrotter-prepped “Winged/Wicked Things” feels demarcated and walled-in, slipped in between two of the more amorphous tracks on the album like an iron pivot, or a chaste reminder that, yeah, there is purpose to be found in this random shit.

Despite, though, their autodynamic tension, the more structurally-loose material falters in an unreconstructed dead-zone, throbbing and fumbling and sometimes even taking cavalier stabs into the dark but not really doing much to justify their inclusion other than as aesthetic stand-ins. The metamorphosing textures of “Colt Stands Up, Grows Horns” and “The Courtesan Has Sung” are expertly worked and beautifully developed, but do little else. They reinforce the record’s overriding concept — its randomness — by forming the flipside to the more eventful tracks, the songs where everything seems to be happening at the same time. However, the lack of any interstitial work, or any musical fascia to pry and parse the two layers of tissue, ensures the album never feels or sounds as good as you suspect it thinks it is; it isn’t encompassing, never totally inclusive.

This is a problem even on the weapons-grade ballyhoo “For the Pier”: arid stillness tucked into uncomfortable positions, sucking the momentum out of its lupine movements, leaving it limp-footed, hob-nailed. Often the music is stagnant, torpid and sluggish. Still, every time I return to Random Spirit Lover — and this is a record to return to, muse over, digest — there’s the tangible sense that something is happening, that something big is underway.

That passage of development is best appreciated in retrospect: the sound of the group has evolved, expanded, and been dosed with imaginative and emotional depth, but in this supernova expansion a hollowness formed at the heart. The biggest problem, perhaps, with the band’s latest effort is how it chooses to define itself. It bears all the signs of an artistic statement, stretching for meaning even as it reconstitutes and tears at the corners of its component definitions. It is both complete and incomplete; logical and wayward; good and, yeah, bad.

This makes for a bizarre, frustrating listen, full of gross epiphanies and moments of searing clarity, already receding, already gone. The sense of confusion and loss is ultimately addressed in closer “Child-Heart Losers,” a mostly unadorned ballad that manages to internalise and embody the album in its two short minutes. It stands as one of this year’s best songs, an acoustic lament cut up by gleaming sugarplums, Camilla Wynn Ingr sighing softly into the brick-wall statement: “Why so many many many many many violins?” It’s a supremely intelligent ending to the most challenging record Krug has been involved with, its tired repetition of “many” voicing a silent fulfilment, the feeling that maybe this time there really is nothing left to say.