Spencer Krug wields the love song like it's the best sword in his collection.
Julia with Blue Jeans On belongs to someone other than Spencer Krug. It is expressively his, of course, as it features him and only him, from the first lyric down to the very last piano note, and I’ll bet he chose the exact room he wanted to record it in. So, yeah it's his, but it's intuitively the work of someone else. That’s not a plot twist; it's just the way this lonely, pining record is. It's at its most beautiful when Krug intones the second person, points at you, or remembers his best shared memory, the time of us when we were in love. Julia couldn’t exist without Krug’s lover, anonymous though they might be. It needs them to take his hand, to affectionately debase his worst anxieties, and make the world around him beautiful. Its big secret: these songs posture, they flaunt it, but they’re ultimately love songs.
Julia spends a lot of time doing that, actually, as it presents the self-portrait Krug guards himself with before we see his true, co-dependent self, hauled up in a room with nobody for company, opening the case of his grand piano to see if anyone is hiding inside it. At first, one hears a Krug who is writing sternly and studiously, lifting from hefty tomes rather than practicing his usual coalescing alchemy. He speaks of the “pseudo-intellectual” and discusses the possibility of “an all-knowing deity”. He shies away from company, considering it redundant, deigning instead that only he is worthy of himself (“sat out on the balcony / doing blow, and playing chess by myself”). If it sounds clunky, it’s because Krug seems to be hardening himself against us, deliberately complicating the transient world Moonface lives in. These verbose moments are hard to listen to, initially. “Barbarian II” fixes its gaze upon us far too intensely, and its lyrics -- “I have chewed through my beautiful narrative to get out of Canada and into your door” -- are likely to elicit nervous laughter. But this disconnect, when coupled with Krug’s love stories, is fascinating, and typical of the music he’s made under this persona. Everything is dramatic; everything is an outpour.
The secret, when it gets out, is that Krug is writing about someone else. “Barbarian” flits by like the passing of a quietly violent autumn, its secrets swept away. Krug suspends the song in place at his piano’s low end, but the fluctuations he allows tell a moving story. “Barbarian” is about metamorphosis, but more importantly, it’s about how a metamorphosis is calmed down by the promise of a lover: “I am a barbarian”, yes, “but sometimes, / I’m a lamb, I’m just a lamb / when I recall how I asked you where you want to be buried / and you asked me the name of the town where I was born." This lyric causes an inflection, a euphoric uplift in the song’s key, and a rare, spontaneous moment in which Krug would rather hum than sing. It’s the result of him being stunned, reduced from monster to pet, and it’s the first moment where we see the gratifying truths contained in Julia come out.
Julia has the feel of a one-session recording -- the acoustics render each song as if it’s following the last, and as if Krug barely broke between them -- but it takes place more formally in the heart. It tends to pictures of a romantic summer and the thought of lovers sweeping one another off their feet. The two songs at the core of Julia are just as co-dependent as the revelation of “Barbarian”, focusing on memories that can only exist when held between companions. Their placement doesn’t seem like a coincidence; “November 2011”, and the more wandering, fanciful “Dreamy Summer”, sit at the record’s centre as if they are conditions of Krug’s beating heart, both telling the story of a man relieved of his fears by virtue of sharing in them. The former rings with a self-congratulatory ease, taking in a neurotic moment like it’s an inside joke. “Baby, we both know, we are both crazy," he sings, reasserting “we both” and turning it into a sacred bond. That line repeats on “November” several times, until Krug is howling, rather than humming. It’s a sign that even his quietest personal victories submit to the sheer force his songwriting is predicated on; these sweet love songs are still ultimately on a Moonface record, the most fiery of his dragonslaying monikers, and so they succumb to its haughty, apocalyptic tone. These love songs become battles, two-against-the-world tales in which Krug points to we rather than I, the calm but then the storm: “Dreamy summer, got nowhere to be / I heard someone say we are not believers."
Krug first previewed Julia with the maudlin “Everyone Is Noah, Everyone Is the Ark”, and in the context of the record, it’s obvious why. It is the purest distillation of the motifs he is working with, stating them as plainer, more universal didactics; in singing “Everyone must gather souls around them to feel useful / and loving, and loved”, he has taken personal anecdotes and made them ideologies. It feels relatable in the sense that everyone, under Krug’s law, is destined to succumb to it, because that is what he has felt. “Everyone Is Noah” is also devoted to the space between the soft and harsh strokes Krug uses; his chords at times are used only to add a base to his words, but at others they take centre-stage, developing the song into its cataclysmic conclusion.
But “Everyone Is Noah” ultimately does for Julia what “Limit to Your Love” does to James Blake. It resonates capably and gorgeously, but doesn’t reveal the tenderness, or the more resolute darkness, that its record ends up surveying. I was surprised by the back-half of Julia because of how deeply it delves into Krug’s sound, and also because of how it seeks to resolve it. “Your Chariot Awaits” begins with piano as fretful as any of the songs on the Krautish Heartbreaking Bravery, but with only himself for company, Krug finds it easier to draw himself out of corners, to allow for flourishes that bring him back to the more beautiful landscape, and the sweeter story. The piano riff Krug plays here serves as the song’s surrogate chorus, allowing him to point upwards and create a happy ending for a needy record that doesn’t explicitly state if its needs were met.
Julia is more touching than any Krug record made before it. There are moments on Apologies to the Queen Mary that match it, but they mostly belonged to Dan Boeckner, who was able to alleviate the grieves his band-mate detailed with swift office job talk or rock ‘n’ roll prayer. These are things Krug has always been somewhat incapable of; reality has been an assertion for synthesizers and high fantasy, and the only allusion to the real world he made on Heartbreaking Bravery -- to Stevie Nicks -- felt like an afterthought. What real life comfort Julia gives out, then, might just be the result of sharing in this fantasy world for long enough. Maybe at this point, with four Moonface releases to his name, the reason Krug sounds so sympathetic is because we know his apocalypse inside out. The listener is indoctrinated in his trials, in the car with him as “we drive toward Salt Lake, away from a lake of fire”, not surprised by either fragment of that detail. To me, though this record is something else; it’s more intimate than that, and it’s for someone else. Behind its metaphors and its robust lyrical refrains, it contains an ode to one particular person. That person calms Julia down; I don’t think, in all honesty, it would exist without them.