With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery

(Jagjaguwar ; 2012)

By Brent Ables | 11 April 2012

Spencer Krug wasn’t supposed to make it this easy. He had me all faked out, you see: with the band abandonment, and subsequent moniker shift; the dogged attempts at impenetrability; the ennui-laden renunciations of his own work. “A garden from the flowers growing out of my remains”—one of Krug’s own metaphors for his music from Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped (2011), and an increasingly typical one from a frontman who’s been trying to tell us at least since Dragonslayer (2009) that he’s sick of being up front. “You go on ahead for awhile,” he sang then, nurturing the myth of collective creation, as if it wasn’t always himself that Krug was catching up with. Until now—when, perhaps, he has.

Because now, on Heartbreaking Bravery, Krug has, along with Finnish band Siinai, given us what no one really expected, in light of past Moonface releases: a relatively straightforward rock record with no shortage of epic flourishes and catchy choruses. A record that sounds uniformly good, and often great. A record, in short, that is eminently likable, and that a lot of listeners (read: everyone but me) are already liking a great deal. Somehow I just can’t shake the feeling that there is a direct correlation between these realities and the more depressing one that suggests itself to me every time I put this record on: that here Krug’s finally lost a little bit of the blinding feral spark that drew us all in in the first place. I like much of this record, and some of it I love. But speaking as someone who has, for the better part of a decade, elevated this guy head and shoulders above all other contemporary songwriters, I worry that I, and maybe others, am just “getting off on yesterday’s fire” when I listen to this. What’s worse: lines like that one (from “Yesterday’s Fire”) make me think Krug might be too.

In fact, let’s pause a second on that line, because there’s something quintessentially “Krug 2012” about it. As I made much of in my review of Organ Music, metaphors and similes involving flame and fire have been at the thematic core of Krug’s work since his earliest days, to the point where Krug’s usage of these figures can arguably serve as a kind of barometer for the very state of his soul. (Think I’m reaching? Go back and listen to “They Took A Vote And Said No,” “All Fires,” “Nightingale/December’s Song,” and “Return to the Violence of the Ocean Floor,” for starters.) An increasingly transparent metaphor, perhaps, but a resonant one nonetheless. So then what we do make of the fact that no fewer than three of the ten songs on this record explicitly invoke fire in the title, and that none of them do so in especially novel or ingenious ways? And what of lines like the opening lyric of the album, where Krug dully invokes “the wild animals” where before he’s always given us a snake-with-legs or other fantastical creature to run with? And choruses like “It’s a shitty city now,” where Krug trades in nuance and depth for cheap alliteration? Am I being overcritical? Expecting too much? Or are these not subtle signs of creative exhaustion, as if Krug simply gave up on crafting new symbols and decided to milk those he’s toyed with for over a decade now?

One answer: maybe they are, but who cares? It doesn’t make this record any less enjoyable to listen to.The thrilling, epic guitar sweep that introduces us to “Shitty City,” the seductive loops of “Quickfire, I Tried,” the palm-muted rock glory of “Teary Eyes and Bloody Lips” (one of Krug’s best singles)—these are wonderfully compelling musical moments of a kind that Krug hasn’t blessed us with in such abundance since Dragonslayer. And it’s not just moments: “Headed for the Door” is a masterfully drawn-out, foreboding piece which takes chords that could’ve come straight out of Lost Highway (1997) and sets them to a cryptic cautionary tale to great effect.

If the whole album were as good as those songs, it would be easy enough to overlook the lack of lyrical depth on display. The problem is that much of the music here evinces the same sense of redundancy, as if Krug was intentionally drawing on specific song structures he’s used in the past without stopping to realize they were some of his least successful. Thus “I’m Not the Phoenix Yet” is built around a repetitive instrumental line that breaks up verses a la Sunset Rubdown’s “Black Swan,” and to equally unspectacular effect. More problematic is the frequent employment of the kind of loose-ended, four-chords-to-eternity song form that “Dinner Bells” introduced to us and that Krug has usually revisited at least once on every album. Here, we get three or four of those songs, and it doesn’t help matters any that both the opener and the closer are among them. (Was it intentional on Krug’s part to put such similar-sounding songs at either end of the album?) And even when Krug does step out of his comfort zone, the result is the almost cartoonish instrumental “10,000 Scorpions” and the bizarrely ’80s-indebted “Yesterday’s Fire.” On his past work, Krug’s forward momentum has always felt distinctly like his own, but here it feels like he’s stuck between recycling past tropes and experimenting with new ones that don’t suit him all that well. Only occasionally does he achieve the ideal middle ground.

But then again, maybe I’ve got this record all wrong. Maybe it really is just me. So closely have I identified with Spencer Krug’s music for so long that I’m not sure I could even differentiate between a lackluster album of his and one that I just didn’t get into—between the dimming of his soul and the dwindling of mine. So in closing, let me just set aside my own reservations and recommend this album to you, Spencer Krug fan, and to all those as well who’ve never heard the name. If you like it, tell your friends about it; hopefully it makes Krug millions of dollars and makes me look like a fool. I just wish I could feel about it like everyone else does.