My God, Spencer Krug is one busy dude. I feel like I’ve just finished a Moonface review. Oh right, I did. I guess you gotta keep moving so you don’t grow stale.
This is not an album you can review in a vacuum. Indeed, as you go through his discography, you can witness Krug building upon his past triumphs (and they are, for the most part, triumphs) and using them as points from which to veer into somewhat uncharted territory. (Let’s face it: Krug pretty much stays within his wheelhouse, even when hacking a new path through weirder forests.) So to suggest that With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery is different from, say, the first Sunset Rubdown record, is really kind of like saying that the hamburger you ate today with mustard and pickles is different from the hamburger you ate yesterday with barbecue sauce and onions. They’re both delicious, and they’re both hauntingly fulfilling. Just like any Spencer Krug joint.
Let’s step back though, and discuss why this record is different. (Cue obligatory list of facts from promotional material that you’ll hear everywhere.) This isn’t just Moonface, our man Spencer’s alter ego. This is Moonface With Siinai. Who the fricking hell is Siinai? Glad you asked. Which link shall I point you to? (See? Obligatory.)
Sorry. I can’t even bring myself to paraphrase, though, so thank you Jagjaguwar!: “Siinai is the Finnish band Krug worked with on this album. They live in Helsinki. . . . Krug met Siinai when their former band, Joensuu 1685, toured with Wolf Parade throughout Europe in 2009. . . . Siinai could safely be described as progressive kraut rock. Their songs are long and heavy, often gorgeous, repetitive, with slow subtle hypnotic changes.” Can’t really simplify more than that, can I? I even left out the cringe-worthy similes. (If you even say hamburger…)
Ever since Krug abandoned his main bands to hiatus (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown), he’s steadily released music as Moonface, and we were all happier for it, even though Krug was the sole contributor to each of the two releases prior to With Siinai. Those were the real outliers – for once we found Spencer on his own, not puffed up by contributing musicians, and we were forced to consider whether or not he could do it himself. And since no one seriously gave that concern a second thought, it was no surprise that Moonface was an unqualified success. (Especially the Dreamland: Marimba and Shit Drums EP – that was acutally the true test, and fuck if he didn’t pass that one.)
But I guess the collaborative bug bit once again, as the big, empty studio just proved to be too lonely for Krug … or something like that. So how, especially in this case where Siinai whipped up most of the music and Krug the lyrics and vocals, does this pairing fare? Is Krug up to the task of dropping the reins and allowing someone other than himself to take on the heavy lifting?
Good and yes. Siinai turns out to be a perfect foil for Krug, and even manages to up the melodrama ante. I don’t think anyone’s ever going to accuse Krug of holding back on his Wolf Parade or Sunset Rubdown releases, but if we were ever going to see a big-time stadium-rock renaissance hit the man, here it is. Siinai is so adept at layering and complementing one another within a neo-prog framework that it’s easy to see the difference between them and Krug’s leaner, meaner previous bands. Of course all this is relative – Random Spirit Lover anyone? – but I’m hard pressed to think of a fuller, richer example over which Krug’s sung/played. He’s always garnered vocal comparisons to Bowie, but here it actually sounds like he’s in the studio with the Thin White Duke in the late 1970s or early 1980s – or he is the Thin White Duke in spirit and performance. Maybe. At least the Chunkier Browner Weirder-Haired Duke, anyway. (Please, Spencer, haircut.) “Yesterday’s Fire” is a good example of this – it’s easy to picture Bowie prancing about on stage and mugging it to the audience.
The song cycle mirrors the performance, in that the entire album is a meditation on the ended relationship – heartbreak, obviously, and the manner of coping with its aftermath, as well as reorienting one’s position in that relationship. Let’s just say, it ain’t a good place to be, and the “blood and gore” (hopefully metaphorical) and other romantic viscera strewn throughout Heartbreaking Bravery serve as a dream-come-true case for a budding CSI. This is the kind of subject on which powerful music can be built, and Moonface and Siinai deliver thick slabs of it, meaty and begging to be ripped into.
The record opens on the title track, and it’s an odd choice, much like kindred spirits Future Islands’ decision to open On the Water with a meditative, emotionally bare ballad. Appropritate, though, for the theme – filled with animal metaphors (a Krug staple), foxes make kills, of one another it seems, and “blood lust” is rampant as two lovers rend one another emotionally in the dying throes of a relationship. Yes, good start, there. The rest of the album is littered with similar verbiage – “Headed for the Door,” “Teary Eyes and Bloody Lips,” “It’s a shitty city now” – as everything falls apart. The cruelty exhibited is astonishing, and frightening in the sense that we are capable of it. “Shitty City” is a cousin to U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name,” but without the optimism. “Quickfire, I Tried,” an album highlight which could also sneak its way onto The Joshua Tree if given the chance, is equally filled with regret, as flaws and shortcomings are dredged up and laid bare.
It’s amazing, then, that I don’t feel the least bit overwhelmed or bombarded after listening to With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery. Part of it’s Krug’s voice, an impossibly impassioned instrument that’s a ray of light through the suffocating thematic fog. Part of it’s the inspired playing of Siinai, equal to the task of propping up Krug’s weighty tales. Together the result is somehow … lighter than the pieces would make it seem, easier to digest, to relate to. It’s not too prog for the common man, and not too pop for stuffy snobs. And even though “Teary Eyes and Bloody Lips” has one of the worst opening couplets Krug has ever penned – “Teary eyes and bloody lips make you look like Stevie Nicks / You never knew that being cruel was such a cool thing to do” – it’s still a quick-paced, energetic single that’s arguably better than some of his late-period Wolf Parade sleepwalking. Consider me sold on this pairing.
And while this may be a larger stylistic leap for Krug as Moonface, in the grand scheme it’s merely, let’s say, a slight shuffle to the left. New collaborators, similar results. All good.
RIYL: Sunset Rubdown, David Bowie, Future Islands, U2
“TEARY EYES AND BLOODY LIPS”