Spencer Krug has always come off as an intense dude, a cross between a high school band geek fascinated by music’s compositional possibilities and a self-destructive Holden Caulfield personality, infatuated with finding truth and beauty in the world. He is, you might’ve heard, in a million different bands. It’s a feat he famously downplays, using his Sunset Rubdown moniker as an avenue to release any material not falling within Wolf Parade-Swan Lake-Frog Eyes perimeters. He’s attempted go about the project quietly, deliberately choosing a smaller label (read: not Sub Pop) for Sunset Rubdown outputs and speaking candidly about wanting to shield the band from hype and his discomfort with press. He’s emerged as an anti-rock star fronting an anti-rock band, one that pushes songs to the point where they don’t always sound quite right, challenges genres, and writes in a token hard-to-decipher lyrical style with few shared signposts for listeners to rally around. On paper, Sunset Rubdown should not be a successful band, and Dragonslayer should not be nearly as good as it is.
Keeping in tradition of previous albums, Krug’s lyrical metaphors continue to revolve around animal imagery. Buffalos, swans and nightingales all get songs dedicated to them. But he ups the ante on Dragonslayer, spinning a share of the album’s content into medieval fairy tales. Take closing track "Dragon's Lair," for example—a twisting nail-biter that might be among the best ten minutes of music recorded this year. It unfolds like a storybook; he paints scenes—introductions, climaxes and resolutions—via detailed language and sounds with undeniable cultural and emotional connotations. In “Black Swan,” drumsticks tap the rims in a rapid, militant beat while a bass drum and eerie effects mimic distant thunder. His chilled, creepy voice breaks out: “There was a black swan outside of the palace, it was appointed by the king/And people took it as a sign that he needed more time/But you said, ‘I ain’t afraid of no blackbird.’” The protagonist scoffs at ghosts and falls asleep in a haunted palace before Krug shouts, seemingly out of nowhere: “And you were hoping for something a little more realistic, you were hoping for the head of the queen.” There’s a squiggly guitar lick and then aural chaos for the next 60-some seconds.
Granted, Krug’s mythical allegories always run the risk of alienating an audience that could see him as a little out there. It would be easy for detractors to roll their eyes—the dude is, like, riding around on an unicorn, singing long-winded tales (songs tend to clock in around six minutes) that namedrop Rapunzel. But every song on Dragonslayer is intertwined with scraps of very real, very human lyrical content. On album opener “Sliver Moons,” he laments: “I believe in growing old with grace/I believe she only loved my face/I believed I acted like a child making faces at acquired tastes.” In wound-up dance anthem “Idiot Heart,” he namedrops characters from Greek mythology, then goes on to sing: “I hope you die in a decent pair of shoes/You’ve got a lot of long walking to do.” By bolstering the mythical references with emotional tirades, it becomes clear that, for Krug, these songs have meaning. And then there’s that voice. A shaky, prepubescent creak that many have accused of being feigned. It does have a tendency to crack in peculiar ways, at peculiar times, but its seesaw cadence—especially the high-pitched yelping—is likely an extension of his emotion, a helpful hint to decode the metaphors.
Krug’s epic compositions mirror the lyrics, giving the record a majestic, moonlit feel. The hooks are there, this time often front and center; steel guitars on “Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!” and the new rendition of “You Go on Ahead” beg you to move. While Random Spirit Lover toyed with glammed-up sounds and unorthodox time signatures, Dragonslayer aligns more with Sunset Rubdown’s live show, allowing for less missteps. Krug would probably be the first to spread the credit among his bandmates for this. Joined by newcomer Mark Nicol on bass and a large presence from sweet-voiced Camilla Wynne Ingr, they sound refined but relaxed and more like a full band—not just a vehicle for Krug’s solo work—than ever before. Even in the middle of “Black Swan,” amid all the foreboding sound effects and screeching guitars, they pull off a wildly infectious breakdown anchored by Krug’s keyboard. And that’s the key to Sunset Rubdown’s work: They push songs to the edge of ugly but don’t have it in them to go all the way.