Spencer Krug returns victorious, teaming with Siinai to write a rock record. I know, right?
Do a favor for me: imagine, if you will, a post-apocalyptic landscape, Hunger Games style, where we've all jettisoned the pretense of not wanting our entertainers to follow our consumerist sensibilities to their logical extreme and fight each other, tooth and claw, to the death in order to earn our unending affection. Except instead of kids, we're watching Canadian musicians. And instead of being the best at archery (right? I haven't read the Hunger Games or seen the movies because, like all music critics, I am ninety years-old and live in the darkness of my long-dead parents' basement), they try to be the best at writing songs to make your dumb life seem infused with a sense of real, electric grace.
In this world, the jerseys with "KRUG" emblazoned on the back have completely sold out six or seven times.
When we last saw him, Spencer Krug was making dark, droning pop music written on -- what else -- an organ. That record -- and the previous output of Krug's Moonface moniker, a 20-minute track written on a vibraphone and two solo piano songs -- seemed to point toward a movement inward on the singer's part, a turning away from audience expectations and the very notion of collaborative music-making, itself.
We should've expected this, then -- another about-face, another apparent 180. Moonface's With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery represents Krug's most collaborative record yet, one where he lets another band do the lion's share of the musical legwork, while he focuses on lyrics, vocals, and the occasional well-placed splash of keys. Siinai, a Finnish band Krug met in a former iteration when they toured with Wolf Parade, shares Krug's forever-simmering curiosity with repetitive, Krautrock-lite structures, and the collaboration could have resulted in something long, flat, and entirely uninteresting. The Great Plains on wax.
Oh, we of little faith. Rather than leading Krug to indulge in his noodling fantasies, Siinai seems to have forced him to the other end of the spectrum, the place where hooks reign supreme. Krug infuses these songs with the preternatural gift for melody that helped send Apologies to the Queen Mary (2005) to the pantheon of ‘00s rock records. I don't mean this record sounds anything like "Grounds for Divorce" or "Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts". It doesn't even sound like later, more abstruse Krug pop-powerhouses in the vein of "You Go on Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)" or "The Mending of the Gown". But Heartbreaking Bravery sounds like Krug and Siinai intend for the pleasures of this record to sit, waiting, right near its surface.
The titular (because the record takes its name from the song, and also because it features Krug's questionable decision to sing "tit" in the opening verse) track opens the record on such a note, all stately drums and beautifully blooming guitar. Heartbreaking Bravery, says Krug, is an album about losing love, and a glance at the lyrics sheet confirms the notion: "But I am not the fox," he sings here, "With bloodstained lips / Standing over the kill / Oh, but, babe / I'm afraid / You are the kill." The lyrics -- with the touches of the fantastic, the taste for anthropomorphizing, that runs through Krug's catalog -- hint evocatively at emotional violence, but the music on Bravery retains a restrained, cinematic beauty throughout. "Shitty City," with its atmospheric, looping intro giving way to the effortlessly joyful sweep of its swirling instrumentation, seems destined to soundtrack the trailer for some film about kids running with their backs to the camera. (The ball's in your court, Spike Jonze.)
In other words, Bravery shares more thematic and tonal ground with Dragonslayer (2009) than any of Moonface's other material, possessed of a similarly lovelorn, darkly dramatic heart. Siinai, though, is not Sunset Rubdown. Where Rubdown guitarists Michael Doerkson and Jordan Robson-Cramer would send Krug's songs into the stratosphere with quickfire arpeggios and fret-burning solos, Siinai offers precisely picked chords ("Heartbreaking Bravery") or swells of shredded noise ("Lay Your Cheek on Down"). Where Robson-Cramer would annihilate his drums with jackhammer fills and tricky time changes, Siinai gives a textbook definition of "understatement," letting a floor tom and a snare punch out simple, effective, often ominous rhythms. Where Krug's output in the late 2000s was virtuosic and volatile, Bravery is poised and comparatively stoic. The record functions on tension and, for the most part, does so brilliantly.
But a Krug record wouldn't be a Krug record without a few interminable dirges ("Stallion", "I'm Sorry I Sang on Your Hands That Have Been in the Grave", "Whale Song (Instead of a Kiss)"). Bravery's meditative tone occasionally threatens to allow the record to retreat into the background -- the final minutes of "Headed for the Door", the slow resolution of "Quickfire, I Tried". Even these moments, though, sound less accidentally dull than purposefully hypnotic. Either way, the record's more vibrant moments more than make up for those more insular ones. The majestic "Lay Your Cheek on Down" hulks and broods with the force of a thousand green Mark Ruffalos, "Yesterday's Fire" finally makes something fulfilling out of Krug's latent prog tendencies, and "Teary Eyes and Bloody Lips" may be the most straightforward rock song he's written since Wolf Parade hung its hat. Come, let us raise Krug on our shoulders and carry him victorious through the streets. Hurry, he might write his next album on the mouth harp.