The restless spirit and penchant for infusing every song with a secret mythology is still there, but the frame is noticeably wider, and as a result it doesn’t feel like every musician in the room is about to collapse onto each other.
The universe that surrounds the players of Wolf Parade isn’t as vast and intricate as the ones sounding other beloved Canadian groups of their ilk – Broken Social Scene and the New Pornographers spring to mind – but the web of great bands is nonetheless impressive. Of the members of the group, none of them have been as hyperactive and restless as Spencer Krug. As part of Wolf Parade, Swan Lake, Sunset Rubdown and Moonface (he’s since ditched all but Wolf Parade in favor of just being “Spencer Krug”), he’s applied his wandering spirit to a remarkable amount of impressive and multi-textured work – did you know that you needed an album containing a marimba-centric song cycle about the Minotaur? You probably didn’t, but Krug somehow made it compelling.
The first three Sunset Rubdown records – Snake’s Got a Leg, Shut Up I Am Dreaming and Random Spirit Lover – are each their own beasts, brilliant but feeling like they could fall apart at the seams at any time. That spirit is what made Apologies to the Queen Mary and Swan Lake’s Enemy Mine compelling: you never quite knew where Krug’s dramatic yelp would guide you. Like many albums like these, though, there’s this lingering wonder about what would happen if the musician behind those albums applied a little more focus and cleaned up all of the rough edges.
Enter Dragonslayer, the final Sunset Rubdown album. Recorded live (“I like these kinds of recordings because they’re very honest and it’s hard to pretend that you sound any different from whatever it is,” Krug told Stereogum in the lead-up to the album), Dragonslayer is impressive not just because it’s a fantastic record, but because it was released during an absurdly busy time for Krug: within a year, he was part of Wolf Parade’s At Mount Zoomer, Swan Lake’s Enemy Mine, and Dragonslayer, each with their own separate identities. Even Dragonslayer’s identity feels separate from the body of work that the band had amassed. The restless spirit and penchant for infusing every song with a secret mythology is still there, but the frame is noticeably wider, and as a result it doesn’t feel like every musician in the room is about to collapse onto each other.
The roominess is immediately apparent on the captivating opener “Silver Moons,” piano playing swirls around an almost marchlike drum beat: “Confetti floats away like dirt and leaves in a wagon’s wake/ There were parties here in my honor/ ‘Til you sent me away.” The album’s imagery is one of its most vital assets, helping to ground you in a world you don’t yet know and won’t really get to know; Krug has a knack for writing songs that don’t sound like they’re for us. Dragonslayer offers few answers as to what came before this moment, and while this was always part of the charm of Sunset Rubdown, “Silver Moons” (and Dragonslayer as a whole) wants you to yearn for answers; when Krug gently sings “Gone are the days bonfires make me think of you/ Looks like the prophecy came true,” the mind races for ways to establish concrete meaning.
Despite all the cryptic lyrics, every song feels centered around themes of growing old, irrelevant or even extinct – on “Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!,” he opines “My god, I miss/ The way/ We used/ To be” and he gives someone a photo of himself “before I got old,” before revealing that it’s actually a buffalo “that we rode into extinction.” “Silver Moons” gives us multiple glimpses of this feeling, in ways both hopeful (“Tell the new kids where I hid the wine/ Tell their fathers that I’m on my way”) and resigned: “Maybe those days are over, over now,” he sings gently. He name-checks Icarus and Samson, famously fallen figures. Even when he’s not being mythical, he’s full of great one-liners: “But like all sacrificial virgins, we all burn in different ways” (“Nightingale/December Song”), “I was never much of a dancer, but I know enough to know ya gotta move your idiot body ‘round” (“Idiot Heart”) “So this one’s for the critics, and their disappointed mothers” (“Dragon’s Lair”). But as he sings on “Idiot Heart,” “You can’t, can’t settle down/ ‘Til the idiot in your blood settles down/ So move around.” Spencer Krug is one of our most talented songwriters, and this album is an embarrassment of riches on that front.
And move around they do. The band made great use of the widened frame, which makes it far easier to process how talented everyone in the room is. I’ve spent countless hours getting lost listening for what drummer Jordan Robson-Cramer is doing on songs like the dense “Idiot Heart” (perhaps the album’s best song in an album packed with contenders for “best song”), or how sweet the interplay between Krug and singer/ace in the hole Camilla Wynne Ingr can be. The feverish “Black Swan” pairs hypnotic rat-tat-tat drum beats with menacing synths, Krug’s voice buried in the mix, lulling you into a false sense of security before he declares “I ain’t afraid of no blackbird” and birdlike squealing guitars begin to invade and retract, keeping you on your toes as Krug outlines royal unrest and ghost problems. Even when you listen to it all at once, these songs rock – “Black Swan” and “You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)” (a sequel to Random Spirit Lover’s “Trumpet, Trumpet, Toot! Toot!”) are damn fine guitar songs, especially for an album that’s hard to describe as a “guitar album.”
Then there’s the epic closer “Dragon’s Lair,” which ties together all the war, confetti and swans that came before it. It’s labyrinthine enough that you can miss that it’s 10-minutes long and learn to crave the solemn piano-centric first section, and how his declaration of “I’d like to fight the good fight for another couple of years/ ‘Cause to say the war is over is to say you are a widow” shoves the song into the next level, leaving you shouting “YOU’RE NOT A WIDOW YET!” along with the band. If tasked with bringing just one album to a desert island, many days I’d pick Dragonslayer simply because even a decade and easily a hundred listens in, I still find new ways to dissect it.
This is what makes Dragonslayer so rewarding to listen to, but so daunting to discuss; we didn’t even cover how many allusions there are to other Sunset Rubdown records here (if you liked the line “If I was a horse, I would throw off the reins if I was you” in “Idiot Heart,” may I present you with “The Men Are Called Horsemen There” from Shut Up I Am Dreaming?). These songs offer constant twists and turns, presented in high-definition, ready for you to attempt to catalog each of them. The band’s previous work had moments you grow addicted to, and even better, they’re easier to find than those same moments on, say, Random Spirit Lover. It’s a shame that Dragonslayer would be Sunset Rubdown’s swan song (so to speak) before Krug began to focus on the multifaceted Moonface, giving us albums focused on marimba (This One’s For The Dancer, and This One’s For the Dancer’s Bouquet, as well as the Dreamland EP), or piano (Julia With Blue Jeans On and City Wrecker) or with Finnish band Siinai (Heartbreaking Bravery). “It sucks that you’re probably never gonna get to see a Sunset Rubdown show,” Krug told me in 2016 at a Wolf Parade reunion show after having a conversation about Dragonslayer, a fact both entirely frustrating and wholly satisfying. It’s the perfect ending that makes you demand the encore that will never come. We’d never get that – as he sings on “Dragon’s Lair”: “It is time for a bigger kind of kill.”