While Sunset Rubdown may be referred to as Spencer Krug’s (Wolf Parade) side-project, their third album, Random Spirit Lover, sounds less like a side-project and more like a swan song. Through the album’s lengthy fifty-eight and a half minutes, Krug is able to manipulate the poetic chaos in a seemingly effortless way, giving equal time to both the frenetic and more sedated sides of his songwriting.
The opener, “The Mending of the Gown”, surges ahead with unbalanced tension, pitting a spiky, distorted guitar against a choppy, ascending keyboard part. The anxiety is eventually quelled by Krug’s vocals – which are chaotic themselves – but slightly less so than the instrumentation. Riding a tall wave of inertia, the song crashes through any semblance of recognizable rock song progressions before finally dying down, letting a pretty guitar and accordion duet tug it gently into the next track. Well executed transitions between songs abound on this record, helping add definition to what could otherwise be far-flung ideas.
Minor keys and sinisterly affected instruments are utilized by Krug and Co. with reckless abandon, but it never feels heavy-handed. High-pitched, chromatic-stepping keyboards swirl through the songs in an unintelligible ether of hisses and moans. The effect is especially menacing on “Colt Stands Up, Grows Horns.” What starts as a cinematic, futuristic space-duet with Krug and keyboardist Camilla Wynne Ingr ends in a demented cacophony of screechy, frenzied keyboards and reverb. The ability of the band to stretch the tension tight is a key component of their sound, and on songs like “Colt Stands Up…” they prove their competence.
If the album does suffer one consistent weakness, it is excess. Too often a solid three minutes of song is clouded by an overzealous outro; a key-change that simply won’t be denied. Of the nine songs (!) that clock in at around five minutes or longer, most of them could be squeezed down considerably. On “For The Pier (And Dead Shimmering)”, one of the album’s few hooks is murdered and buried by prog-rock explosions at the two minute mark. The problem gets exasperated when cathartic, long-winded climaxes – such as the one that occurs on “Stallions” – are flattened and lifeless due to the album’s thin, low-fi production. What might be a triumphant, ‘Arcade Fire’ spectacle is instead beating a dead stallion.
Taken in soundbytes, Krug’s lyrics are obtuse and nonsensical. Because he sings about crazy things with a crazy conviction, it would be easy to dismiss his writing as unserious (at best). But seen from a wider angle, Krug’s poetry coalesces into something deceivingly coherent, bubbling with urgency and a heartfelt cogency. A theme that jumps out again and again is the competing and contradicting notions of science and faith, history and myth, as in “Winged/Wicked Things”: “I say it’s just smoke/So you say it’s the hair of ghosts.”
As a vehicle for displaying Krug’s unique craft, Sunset Rubdown is a remarkably beautiful creature, and Random Spirit Lover is its long-winded child. At an hour long with no discernible hooks, the album will never infringe on Apologies to the Queen Mary territory, but then again, Krug wouldn’t even have a Myspace profile for the band if it were up to him. The following verse from “Courtesan Has Sung” shows Krug’s penchant for knocking down the fourth-wall with ambiguous bravado:
Five actors have arrived
They are good looking but they’re hungry
They start cooking with the trash found on the safety of the stage
And you see a crowd is forming
But the winged things are swarming
Yelling “Stop! It’s fucking poison!”
But the deaf
They hear no warning
Of course it would be going too far to say that those five actors were anyone in particular (cough, cough, Wolf Parade, cough), right?