On their underrated 2006 debut, Beast Moans, Swan Lake, the group composed of Dan Bejar (he of Destroyer), Spencer Krug (he of Sunset Rubdown and Wolf Parade) and Carey Mercer (he of Frog Eyes), were able to succeed despite having to cram song ideas from three parties into 13 tracks of splintered, bookish indie rock. That the group’s second effort, Enemy Mine, is able to accommodate all three distinct voices in only nine tracks is even more remarkable. But that Enemy Mine is a firm step sideways is less so.
Where Beast Moans highlighted the three-headed monster’s Bowie pilfering, Enemy Mine instead finds the members retreating into their labyrinthine lyrics and a musical milieu that can be mostly described with the adjectives “languid,” “reverbed” and “dreary.” Opener “Spanish Gold, 2044” sets the pace for the rest of the album. Mercer starts the track off with his hiccupping, serrated vocals over minimal instrumentation until Bejar and Krug add shouts in the background, building the track up from its meager and aimless beginnings.
Beast Moans was marked by Bejar’s inclusions, which were among that album’s best, but Enemy Mine is a more group-oriented effort, since each songwriter gets three tracks to do his thing. That said, Krug’s tracks are generally the most exciting: “Paper Lace” and “A Hand at Dusk” sound like the ballads that mark his contributions on Wolf Parade albums, and “Settle on Your Skin” is the album’s most kicking track. Bejar fairs slightly worse. His swooning ballad “Heartswarm” serves as the album’s first third highlight, but “Battle of Swan Lake (or Daniel’s Song)” is a strange curio in the middle of the album that plays like a renaissance fair original, while “Spider” is a hazy, dreamy piece that sounds like a sub-par Destroyer B-side.
In some ways, Enemy Mine is an expectation shatterer, because it refuses to deliver the skewered indie rock that Swan Lake delivered the first time out, and instead focuses on a newer style that could define the group beyond its more notable projects. Mercer’s songs tend to lead the way in this regard: His free-form “Warlock Psychologist” closes the album on its strongest moment. All three members toss off non-sequiters over a fuzzy guitar riff that is slowly coming apart at the seams, with Mercer playing the role of the ranting scientist.
But at the same time, Enemy Mine is also an expectation ducker, since it finds Swan Lake avoiding building on the sound of their debut album. Instead of opting for a bigger, bulkier sound, they opted for a more introspective, unhurried approach, which doesn’t always suit the obtuseness of Swan Lake at its most obtuse (which is pretty much always).