In the past three years, Spencer Krug has walked away from two critically acclaimed bands, when anyone else would be pushing for the stadium-rock support slot that takes them into the premier league; instead, Krug moved from Canada to Finland in pursuit of his muse, as if Iceland (now synonymous with avant-garde artists in retreat) had become too popular and not hermetic enough to hear those whispers of divine language that Keats strained after, that slipped through Coleridge’s fingers as the dream dissolved. It’s easy to see how a perfectionist might feel that Wolf Parade were treading water on their bigger-but-not-better Expo 86, but Sunset Rubdown (originally an outlet for his experimental side) seemed boundlessly creative, and the perfect updating of Seventies glam rock at its artiest. You really had to want to see that Dragonslayer (still one of the decade’s finest IMHO) might have represented a full-stop, since it had refined older songs and lyrical motifs past the point of imrovement.
Julia with Blue Jeans On is album number three-and-a-half for the Moonface project, which shows no signs of settling into a fixed style yet, after the Dreamland EP set André Breton to marimbas, Organ Music updated the sub-aquatic ambience of Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, and Heartbreaking Bravery replicated Eno and Bowie’s krautrock infatuation. Yes, the title recalls Bejar & Boeckner’s cutting-and-pasting of rock’s backpages (here, Bowie’s best pop song + the heroine of Lennon & Barrett’s prettiest) but Krug renounced his own extended metaphors and fabular cast of characters in the album’s trailer; I’m sorry if not everyone likes it, he more or less said, but the new challenge is to make music for solo piano that’s unironic, emotionally unguarded, and cut adrift from obvious influences.
And it’s a triumph. I’d be the last to complain if Krug continued his trend of re-enacting the career of Brian Eno (after all: imitating the greatest innovator of the second half of the century means, by definition, pursuing oblique strategies) but this is the true departure: an album so intimate and romantic that few in recent memory compare. Take 'November 2011':
Let me take you to the room… where we both know we’ll be staying
Let me take you in my arms… until all the old ghosts are slain
Let me put one hand… on the back of your neck
And let me put one hand… on the small of your back
Let me have… this… dance
The tune is reminiscent of SunRub’s gorgeous 'Silver Moons' but this isn’t the fairytale ending the earlier song evoked: the young troubadour hailed as a conquering hero only to leave the magic kingdom for fresh adventures, waved off by fauns, in pursuit of a nymph whose skirts hide "an ocean and a tide / and a riot in the square". Here, the romance comes from the bleakness of the November setting (neither autumn’s turning colours nor Christmas festivities) against which some warmth is kindled from the erotic anticipation of the trudge up the stairs to the artist’s garret, and then the tentative movement of hands into a timeless ritual of seduction; as sensuous as it is afraid of losing what it has for holding too tight.
Not that Krug has defected entirely to the realist camp. The opener, 'Barbarian', condenses the idea of being a foreigner, a stranger in a strange land, together with a more existential alienation: a disconnect from language that should enable him to understand himself and be understood. Borne aloft by a trembling two-note motif, lead melody seems to float whimsically over treetops like John Williams’ score for ET, only to find its emotional punch with the line:
I remember when I asked you… where you’d like to be buried
and you asked me the name… of the town where I was born…
Something angry, or animal, keeps him from being contented where he is; the vocal line hollers in protest against the almost saccharine accompaniment, only to confess that the anger comes from being unable to remain in that idyll, to still be a child. It’s not a comparison that could have been made before, but as a lyricist and musician alike, Krug’s come to resemble Mark Kozelek (of Red House Painters & Sun Kil Moon), such is his distillation of nostalgia for a smalltown childhood, in which the strongest emotion is that paradoxical yearning for something more to life. While Kozelek’s solo album for nylon-string guitar attempted the trick of playing with one hand behind the songwriter’s back, Krug has the greater range of the piano to play with, and its dual function to carry percussion parts and delicate lead melodies, meaning that his narratives have a force, and presence; some of the quality of a theatrical performance (although this is more Ibsen or O’Neill than the Andrew Lloyd Webber on mushrooms of Random Spirit Lover). That’s to say, the room sound is manipulated perfectly, whether Krug leans in close for a confession, or adds a haunting echo by hollering, further away from the microphone, for an ominous, almost gong-like shimmer of sound, deep in the background.
Not another album updating the great musical ideas of the past, then, but an album updating the great sentiments: to tell someone how much you need them and that you’d be lost without them. If you’re not in love right now - an album to fall in love with, until then.
8Alexander Tudor's Score