At this point, calling Spencer Krug “busy” is a tad insulting. John Mayer probably considers himself crazy busy, but he’s not releasing his third full-length album (with three different bands) in 53 weeks. Krug makes other hardworking musicians seem like lazy chumps. Last June, he released the sophomore Wolf Parade album (At Mount Zoomer), and in February, he released the second album from Swan Lake (Enemy Mine), his side project with Carey Mercer and Dan Bejar. And now comes the fourth Sunset Rubdown album, Dragonslayer.
Dragonslayer is perhaps the first Sunset Rubdown album with actual expectations, since Random Spirit Lover made Krug into a star of Canadian indie rock in a way the first Wolf Parade (Apologies to the Queen Mary) and Swan Lake (Beast Moans) albums didn’t. Random showed Krug as the king of nuanced prog-rock epics, and it garnered heaps of critical praise. But like the latest Swan Lake album, Dragonslayer doesn’t so much meet expectations as subvert them. Gone is the studio-as-a-tool ethos and the Bowie-esque grandeur of Random Spirit Lover, and in its place is a bare-boned, straight-ahead approach to Krug’s broken, tightly wound masterpieces. The songs might not be as massively scaled and gloomy, but the stripped approach opens up Dragonslayer, in sharp contrast with much of Krug’s past work, which kept listeners at arms’ length due to its sometimes impenetrable structure.
“Silver Moons” opens Dragonslayer in a melancholic fashion, Krug’s signature vocal squawk intertwining with somber and sparse ballad instrumentation. “Silver Moons” sets the tone for the album’s seven remaining tracks, as Krug’s dense songwriting is often wrapped up in unadorned constructs, with simple percussion and instrumentation played by his confident backing band. “Black Swan” has a sense of mystery thanks to its rattling drum clicks and blunt guitar riff. First single “Idiot Heart” is perhaps the most direct song Krug has ever recorded, and while it has lines about “the Icarus in your blood” and a disjointed feel, its intentions are known from the first guitar strum. The pinnacle of the new aesthetic is “Dragon’s Lair” the epic 10-minute album closer that finds Krug and keyboardist Camilla Wynne Ir trading harmonies over escalating crescendos.
Sunset Rubdown still make time for the weird, and songs like “Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Anna Oh” and album highlight “You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)” showcase the band’s older style. Krug has more or less been playing catch up to Apologies to the Queen Mary’s “I’ll Believe in Anything,” his best song to date, and “You Go On Ahead” nearly approaches that status thanks to its delicate keys, searing guitar work, and Krug’s manic shouting. There’s something that’s just so perfect how things converge on “You Go On Ahead” that it kind of towers over the rest of the album.
Unlike other indie rockers with a thing for prolificacy (say Bob Pollard), there’s not a weak link in Krug’s immense and varied output. And Krug’s career has a (not so) tidy narrative arc; you could draw a line between his bug-eyed tracks on Apologies to the more ambitious songs on Random Spirit Lover, from there to the mellow-prog-rock explosions on At Mount Zoomer, then to the mellow and gloomy songs on Enemy Mine, and finally to the stripped-bare production on Dragonslayer. And while Dragonslayer might not be the best album in Krug’s robust oeuvre, there’s still enough here to convince us that Krug is still the ascendant king of indie rock, and that he might have a magnum opus yet to come.