At this point, what could be more stale than to say that life in 2019 is absurd? We are bombarded daily by cataclysmic gyrations of the news cycle, each new development more bizarre and nightmarish than the last. The president is in a feud over purchasing Greenland, for chrissakes.
In the midst of this cacophony of shit, even respite can feel precarious and fraught. As the year wanes to a close, bringing the previous ten years with it, escapism—particularly through popular culture—has increasingly felt to me like a crucial lifeline and a crutch. Lately I’ve found myself wanting to retreat from the absurdity of reality and to enter the profundity of the absurd. Perhaps no other form of entertainment allows me to do this more reliably than the music of Sunset Rubdown.
Created in 2005 as a side project to the burgeoning indie success of Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown allowed the group’s founder, Spencer Krug (also of Swan Lake, Frog Eyes and Moonface fame) to indulge his vocal and musical idiosyncrasies. Over the course of four years, they recorded an EP and four full-length albums, the last of which was released a decade ago.
Their debut LP, Snake’s Got A Leg, is their rawest—Krug’s voice is subsumed by thunderous, reverb-swaddled piano, bright percussion and crackling guitar. As a whole, the album sounds like the band’s incubation stage—the themes and time signatures slip incongruously, the bass reverberates in a dull drone. It’s not hard to believe it was largely recorded in Krug’s bedroom on a cheap PC microphone. Through its experimentation, Snake’s Got A Leg provides a fascinating sketch of what would come later. (Incidentally, one of Wolf Parade’s biggest hits, “I’ll Believe in Anything” appears in an early form here.)
Perhaps the most salient aspect of the album, and its successors, is how perfectly ludicrous it all feels. From the band’s name to Krug’s intermittently soaring melodies and stuttered yawps to the song titles (“Hey You Handsome Vulture,” “Portrait of a Shiny Metal Little Boy,” “Snakes Got a Leg 2”) the album creates an unmistakable atmosphere: utterly irreverent and off-kilter, but composed enough that it can’t be written off as mere fantastical posturing.
No element more precisely encapsulates this than Krug’s lyrics. Half carnival barker, half psychoanalyst, he is able, through elaborate and often regal metaphor, to diagnose the emotional ambiguity of inhabiting a body full of melancholy and desire in our modern world.
I’d like to say that what first drew me to Sunset Rubdown was something so lofty as these emotions. But neither played a role in my picking up Shut Up When I Am Dreaming when it was first released, in 2006. Rather, in keeping with the character of the idiotic high schooler that I was, I made my purchase based on the band’s name alone. Happily, the music was much more textured and nuanced than my thought process.
For the uninitiated, the opening clash of “Stadiums and Shrines II” can be rather abrasive. The tonal quality of Krug’s deliberate, cyclical synth punctuated by crashing cymbals resists casual listening. But if you’re generous enough to stick it out, you’ll be rewarded with lyrical delights with little parallel in the recent past. There’s a sheepish thrill to hearing Krug wail, “The white undersides of my thighs looked much better / In the dark light / There’s a kid in there / And he’s big and he’s dumb, / And he’s kinda scared” and the slow, defensive croon of “I’m sorry that your mother died / But that one wasn’t my fault.”
The rest of the album’s forty-six minutes ebb and flow with manic energy and plaintive introspection. With the additions of Camilla Wynne Ingr, Michael Doerksen, Jordan Robson-Cramer and Mark Nicol to the ensemble, the music transforms from impressionistic sketch into what I imagine life inside a Hieronymus Bosch painting might sound like.
Highlights include, for various and equally complex reasons, “The Empty Threats of Little Lord,” “The Men Are Called Horsemen There,” and “Shut Up I Am Dreaming of Places Where Lovers Have Wings.” Though shrouded in oddity, the immediacy of these songs is nearly visceral; there is perhaps nothing better than witnessing nonsense become suddenly, intensely comprehensible. These songs are littered with such moments.
Even those that didn’t grab me at first now seem charming and irreplaceable. From the meandering, synth-laden“Q-Chord” to the plucky, discordant “Swimming,” each track serves the album’s emotional arc. The tension built in these less easily digestible stretches helps build to the euphoric, all-consuming abandon of Sunset Rubdown in its stride.
“Us Ones in Between,” the third song on the album, is perhaps its tenderest and strangest. “You are a waterfall waiting inside a well, / And you are a wrecking ball before the building fell,” opens Krug over a minor progression. While admittedly a bit arch in its sentiment, the song soon complicates itself: “I want to be alone, but I want your body / So when you eat me, mother and baby / Oh, baby, mother me before you eat me.” Whole dissertations can be written on that tercet alone (Hey there, Saturn! How’s your boy Freud?), but suffice it to say that the first time I heard the song, it felt like transcendence, both wildly unexpected and desperately needed.
By the time Random Spirit Lover was released the following year, I was a devoted convert to Krug’s outlandish sermons. Living, as I was, in the crushingly monotonous American heartland of the late aughts, the album was a provocation and a reprieve.
If Shut Up I Dreaming was a holy missive sent from another era, Random Spirit Lover was a testament through which an entire alternate world could be read and understood. Here, Krug and company’s mature neo-baroque aesthetic oozes across the work, ensnaring the imagination like some mythical tentacled beast.
The third and fourth songs, “Up On Your Leopard, Upon the End of Your Feral Days,” and “The Courtesan Has Sung,” are exemplary distillations of this. “Upon Your Leopard,” opens with a march-step arpeggio, is slowed to a glacial hammering of keys, and finally builds anthemically to a final chant. It’s the sonic equivalent of a Hunter S. Thompson romp through an already dilapidated Coney Island, teeming with crowds of ghouls and gentry and toxic power dynamics. “Your highness is holding your chains,” cries Krug as the song collapses into the staccato round robin of “The Courtesan Has Sung.”
Yet for all its theatrical grandstanding, Random Spirit Lover also contains some of Sunset Rubdown’s most vulnerable moments. “Setting Vs. Rising,” is a metaphor-laden exploration of ambition brushing against reality: “How you gonna get the soil and the glory / When you want to be a harvester of light / But the soil only turns under the moon’s shitty story?” The stripped-down acoustic “Child-Heart Losers” similarly flips two sides of an argument to arrive at a bare rhetorical question. In many ways, the impulse to create and then defuse dualities lies at the heart of the band’s project. This is felt in nearly every song, and is evident in the titles of the album’s other standout tracks, such as “Winged/Wicked Things,” “The Taming of the Hands That Came Back to Life,” and “Magic Vs. Midas.”
After Random Spirit Lover, Krug kept busy with obligations to both Sunset Rubdown and Wolf Parade. Following the breakout success of Apologies to the Queen Mary, Wolf Parade released the much-anticipated At Mount Zoomer in 2008, and Sunset Rubdown’s Dragonslayer appeared the subsequent year. Though he’s been on the record in interviews for eschewing the marketing and publicity efforts put behind Wolf Parade, it seems that some of the concomitant professionalization Krug experienced in recording and supporting that band permeated his creative conscious.
Dragonslayer is Sunset Rubdown’s foray into to the greater world, wrapped in a listener friendly mix of rock and pop. You won’t find a “Q-Chord” or a “Stallion” here. The lumpy, surging synth and drowned vocals of Random Spirit Lover and meandering exuberance of Shut Up I Am Dreaming have been replaced by sedate and measured gestures toward the band’s characteristic eccentricity without fully embracing it. Even Krug’s antic lyrical imagination seems restrained: “And if there are two eyes in my head / There are four seasons in a year,” opens the chorus of “You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II).”
With that said, Dragonslayer is not a conventional album by most measures. It has all the hallmarks of a Sunset Rubdown project. In particular, it transfigures the structure of the album into a sensory and atmospheric experience. There are no identifiable breakout singles, the songs follow an internal logic and do not lend themselves to selective listening. To sum up, listening to Dragonslayer feels less like a carnival-infused K-hole and more like a heady swig of single-batch weirdness. The dissociation, while a bit weaker, still lingers.
Which brings me back, finally, to escape.
The universe into which Sunset Rubdown invites the listener is, in turns confounding, frustrating, triumphant and pleasurable. But there are plenty of artists who create music that accomplishes all these things. To me, what differentiates Sunset Rubdown is the earnestness beneath the scaffolding of the absurd. There is real emotion here, and it asks to be understood on its own terms.
Krug’s project has an almost Emily Dickinson-like relationship to the outside world; the metaphors and compositions outline a fully realized perspective that is both informed by and rejects external pressures of conformity and taste. Like a serpentine constellation in the night sky, the true meaning of Sunset Rubdown is available to be deciphered, but somehow stays just out of reach. It’s so immersive and uncanny as to be almost oracular.
And in the current era, that is exactly the oddball journey I find myself needing whenever the real world feels too bonkers to take.