When last year’s Shut Up I Am Dreaming opened with the majestic “Stadiums and Shrines II,” it instantly hypnotized: whirling synths, spiraling guitar, and Spencer Krug’s dramatic, bleated vocals. It also ushered in a new phase for a band begun as a hermetically sealed home-recording project, transforming to a bona fide band capable of bringing all of Krug’s madcap ideas into precisely executed reality. Unsurprisingly, the result indulged his penchant for soaring theatrics, unusual instrumentation, and disjointed parts soldered together into a single song. But in the end, Shut Up I Am Dreaming was a collection of pop songs; each was melodically direct, if structurally evasive.
Released a year later, Random Spirit Lover is another beast altogether. To appropriate the title of one of the new album’s songs, the colt that was Shut Up has stood up and grown horns. All of Krug’s eccentric tendencies are amplified — and they’re cloaked in a mock darkness barely hinted at on its predecessor. Not only is there a sense of menace lurking here, but there’s also a general obscurity to these songs. Recurring images sink and surface throughout the album, but they dangle like loose ends rather than form any coherent narrative. Likewise, many of these songs demand that listeners untangle complex melodies and slippery arrangements. Crafting a decidedly more difficult record was likely something Krug intended, considering these songs seamlessly segue in and out of each other. That means some parts sound almost superfluous, as if they were written expressly to maintain this continuity. Still, the effect succeeds far more often than it fails.
In fact, it helps create a satisfying sense of dramatic arc for those listeners willing to listen to Random Spirit Lover from start to finish. For example, as the spooky “Colt Stands Up, Grows Horns” transforms into unnerving horror score, it could easily lapse into self-indulgence. But after its circular synth lines and clattering drums wind up to monstrous heights, it evaporates into the restrained piano chords of the next track, “Stallion.” Before long, “Stallion” — a skewed piano ballad that recalls vintage Roxy Music tunes like “Sunset” and “For Your Pleasure” — repeats the trick by building tension to a caged-animal extreme.
If the songs are specifically designed to be heard in relation to each other, Random Spirit Lover nonetheless boasts individual highlights. “For the Pier (Dead and Shimmering)” is the album’s lightest number, replete with sunny melodies. But even the most directly melodic songs on the album — “Up on Your Leopard, Upon the End of Your Feral Days,” “Winged/Wicked Things” — are subject to stops, starts, and unexpected shifts and packed with layers of sonic detail. The overall tone of the album may be too “prog” for some listeners, but, as ever, Krug is writing songs. (Granted, these take longer to unpack than any he’s written before.) For a songwriter who splits his attention between multiple bands (Swan Lake and Wolf Parade, among them), his imagination is intimidating. Like the seance medium the album’s title conjures, he seems to have some supernatural gift for pulling songs out of thin air.