Spencer Krug isn't one to linger. He left Wolf Parade behind. He left Sunset Rubdown behind, twice: First he turned it from a small home-recording project into a full-on band, then he broke up the full-on band. And now he's got Moonface, a project that now has three releases under its name, none of which sound anything alike. The first EP, the sprawling Dreamland EP: Marimba and Shit-Drums, sounds nothing like the layered organs (and only organs) of last year's Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped.
And now there's Heartbreaking Bravery, an album Krug has recorded with a new backing band, the Finnish rock band Siinai. In some ways this is a rare look back for Krug, since he first met Siinai years ago while touring with Wolf Parade. They talked about recording together, but it has just now come together. The band handles nearly all of the music here -- with just a little keyboard by Krug -- while Spencer brings his warbly vocals and wandering lyrics to the fray.
The results are both wholly surprising and absolutely in step with what Krug has always done. There are weighty layers here and a prog-rock sense of space and shifting forms, which you'd expect from Krug, but Siinai comes at those textures with a post-rock feel of gathering clouds. These compositions are dark and all-encompassing, never quite storming but always threatening. The opening title track thumps in on plodding, insistent drums and some echoing guitar, clanging piano chords, and a whole lot of negative space around Krug's reverb-treated vocals. It's a particularly moody opening to an album that is unrelentingly heavy, if occasionally sweet.
The space can leave the appropriate room for Krug's extended metaphors which deal, unabashedly, with heartbreak. In fact, you might even call his loftily built images, you know, brave. "And now I want your sex," he pines on that opener, "but I am not the fox with blood-stained lips standing over the kill." Right off the bat, Krug claims he'll not linger over the relationship he's ruined, he'll not go back to the remnants of a love long gone.
Of course, if he doesn't go back to it, he spends this album circling it, and Siinai's expansive, shadowy tunes reflect the growing space between Krug and his subject. The way these songs trudge along, spreading slowly like a stain, can be effective. "Quickfire, I Tried" finds Krug working up into a fever over a tight coil of pulsing guitars and ringing pianos. Krug starts with the flawed logic of a desperate lover ("Quickfire, I tried to be your solitude") before ending the song with the frustrated admission, "Quickfire, we were bound to be alone, together like a stone is with a stone." That paradox, that our loneliness can be so clearly tied to another person, is the most compelling force behind the record.
Despite all the space, the ache and beauty of the record resonates best when layers thicken, when they pick up the pace. The wall of distortion and electro-squeaks that starts "Shitty City" is the perfect landscape for Krug's tensed-up voice, especially when it opens up with the drums into some sort of techno-rock version of Jesus and Mary Chain. "Teary Eyes and Bloody Lips" is the catchiest song here, and also the most striking, because it cuts through all the patient building of the record with some immediate force.
Which is, in the end, what Heartbreaking Bravery is often missing. The space here, at its best, affords the emotion of Krug's songs room to spread and resonate. But too often -- as on "Yesterday's Fire" or "Faraway Lightning" -- that space crumbles when the band wanders into too many formless phrasings. Krug follows them down those rabbit holes and the melodies muddle and fade.
It's telling that the most distinct moments of many of these songs come when Krug's keyboard rises up in the mix. Siinai have a knack for texture and atmosphere, but you don't get the feeling it's distinctly theirs yet. Despite all his sonic island-hopping over the years, Krug has an aesthetic noticeable as his, and unfortunately his backing band here doesn't quite have the same unique musical vision. As a result, what could be a great album ends up being solid. Because, without a clear personality, all this thumping, spacious sound, which should sound like insistent marching, sounds more often like the shuffling of feet.