Over the years, Spencer Krug’s creations have varied from abstruse instrumentals to straightforward pop rock, theatrically epic explosions to minimalist subtleties, and though I have not always enjoyed each piece, his willingness to stretch his musical gifts, to venture into lands unknown, despite the warnings of resident dragons, has not only made the best of his work possible, it is also why he is my favorite artist of this generation, and probably of any other. So when I first listen to a new album of his, I cannot help but wonder how it will stack up against the rest of his oeuvre. Will it have the energy of Wolf Parade’s “Apologies to the Queen Mary,” or the coming-of-age drama in Sunset Rubdown’s “Dragonslayer”? Will this new direction from the Moonface moniker carry him to success, or, like Moonface’s previous albums, lead him to fall flat on his face?
I struggle with how to give my answer the weight and emphasis needed to accurately depict my feelings; but, suffice it to say, when your favorite artist releases your favorite album to date, it is something pretty damn special.
I think what grabbed me first was the way he captured the soul of each song with nothing but a classically inspired acoustic piano and his own alluringly unique voice. In today’s music world, it is almost unthinkable to produce an album without drums, or bass, or even a guitar to flesh out the harmonies; and perhaps, without familiarity with these barer accompaniments, some might find it difficult to appreciate the genius that goes into doing it well. If you are one of these individuals, allow me to give you an idea: imagine trying to capture the richness of a sunset over the Pacific Ocean, but you can only use the shades of just one color to complete your masterpiece.
Sounds difficult, doesn’t it?
Well, that’s exactly what Krug did, and somehow, despite the dishonesty imposed by the restrictions, he imbued the portrait with more truth than any other might have done without the same restrictions. From the ominous arpeggios introducing the title track, to the almost lazy tones of “Dreamy Summer,” and the finishing movement in “Everyone Is Noah, Everyone Is the Ark” where he finds a way to match the intensity of his voice with a simple riff of five chords . . . in all of it he constructs the tantalizing harmonies he needs to transform the melodies from intriguing and pretty, and give them new life as ethereal and gorgeous.
If this album were nothing but melodies and harmonies, it would have earned itself a glowing review; however, interwoven with the majesty of the music are lyrics that are immanently personal, giving the listener an opportunity to, alongside Krug, fall in love with the namesake of the album. But this does not mean he just hands the listener every subtle meaning and nuance free of charge. More often than not, the power of these personal tales of love and loss comes from lyrics threaded with symbols and allegories, and what the listener gains from a careful absorption in the work is not only a tale of Krug and one of his girlfriends, but also an existential ode to love in this modern world.
So when he asks Julia “where [she] wants to be buried,” and she, in turn, asks for “the name of the town where [he] was born,” we are not receiving a mere oddity in some darkly twisted first date questionnaire. We are also given a glimpse into one of the great contrasts presented in existentialist thought: those who see the meaningless of a life which can only end in death, and those who see in our life something to be celebrated and affirmed. Later in the album, when he sings, “I regretfully withdraw my offer to try and improve myself,” he is not turning in his two week notice to Corporate America; he is turning in his notice to society, proudly declaring his current self to need no further work.
But alongside these mundane manifestations of grandiose sentiments, Krug also relinquishes his grandiose sentiments for a more mundane truth, most poignantly in the title track where he discovers that nothing is “more noble than a folded hand.” Here he resigns his search for divine and perfect beauty, whether in love or music, to the failed experiments of life, to the hiccups of our mortal journey which must be climbed over if we are ever to move forward. And despite the seemingly impassable mountains of failures, what he finds on the other side of them is a name worth singing, even if it is not God.
And what, pray tell, is that name? It’s “Julia . . . just Julia with blue jeans on.”
Krug delivers the fullest expression of this overarching philosophy in the track “Everyone Is Noah, Everyone Is the Ark,” where he bemoans the cruel bitches of fate, deluging us in their floods, leaving us to drown or build an ark of our own. The ark is the most robust symbol of the album, a picture of the defenses we build to fight off the waters’ cruelty, an image of the meanings we construct in the face of terrifying meaninglessness.
And of what are our arks made? What comprises each of the planks we nail down in its service? That answer is different for everyone. The beauty, the strength, of the symbol lies in its universality, that each one of us can build our very own ark, and then fill it with all we need saved from the turbulent waters: the trinkets from our past, the hopes for our future, and the beauty of our present.
However, for Spencer Krug, I feel certain that he has put aside at least one of those planks, if not the entire hull, for his beloved Julia.