It’s no real surprise David Grubbs would name an album The Plain Where the Palace Stood, that his set would focus not on the once-standing structure but on the space where it used to be. In his solo records, and with Gastr del Sol, Grubbs has been breaking down and deconstructing all kinds of musical structures, from folk traditions to rock and punk traditions. His music can be as tuneful as it is dissonant, as ordered as it is full of negative space.
Despite the five-year break since his last proper Drag City record, this record picks up where A Guess at the Riddle left off. That record was a bit warmer, perhaps more lush in tone, but still looked into the thorny rock and pop tropes The Plain Where the Palace Stood digs into. It’s a record that looks into several different tensions, not the least of which is the title-track opener, which feels like the build up to an arena rock anthem that never comes. Lean guitars churn, steadily rising while violin and electronics and percussion fuss and fume around them. It’s a song all the more effective for not breaking up, for building and building. It evokes tones of both post-rock and late-era Coltrane, a mix that is no easy feat.
It’s also a much different tension than “I Started to Live When My Barber Died”, a wandering solo number where Grubbs recounts a favorite song he can’t remember and, more largely, what it means to be an aging musician in a young person’s game. His worry, or resignation, comes not in tense clusters of notes but in wandering phrasings, negative space, Grubbs’s all-over-the-map melodies. It feels both free and lost. It’s also exactly the kind of tune we’ve heard from Grubbs before, though it serves as an interesting counterpoint to the more tuneful “Ornamental Hermit”.
“Ornamental Hermit” is one of a handful of tracks that show the pop sensibilities Grubbs too often hides. The guitar work is intricate but thumping, pulsing with a kind of immediacy — even in its dreamy, ringing moments — that his wander-folk moments lack. “Super-Adequate”, on the other hand, leave lush tones behind in favor of lacerating hooks. The hooks do give way to a folk breakdown, but not before roaring back in a controlled fit of noise. “Abracadabrant” is a more wide-open composition, but Grubbs doesn’t sing over it but rather lets the guitars — drenched in swampy, bluesy tone — do the talking, spreading out into the space around them.
In these moments, we see the power of Grubbs’ guitar playing and eccentric eye for hooks and melody. They deconstruct our expectations but leave enough echoes of them intact to make these playful explorations and not stubborn, surface experiments. Other moments, though, like “I Learned to Live When My Barber Died” or “The Hesitation Waltz” or the haunted “Fugitive Colors” don’t ripple out into the space around them so much as they feel small in comparison to that space. These are the moments when Grubbs sounds at his most along here — though there are electronics added by others in places — and because of that the playing lacks some tension. There’s no counterpoint in these moments, nothing to bounce his worry off of in “When My Barber Died” or the sense of time passing in “The Hesitation Waltz”. These things just stretch and fade without ever quite lingering.
It’s in these moments that you realize that The Place Where the Palace Stood exists more on what is there than what has been stripped away. It’s best moments are far from solo and — like Grubbs work in Gastr del Sol, Codeine, Bitch Magnet, etc. — find him at his best when he’s in conversation with other players, other instruments, other sounds. Grubbs does tear things down in interesting ways, but it’s what he builds, with the help of others, that tends to resonate when the dust settles.