There is an arrogance inherent to the act of creation. Every single thing that you make is an indirect assertion that the universe, in its present state, is lacking in something and that you can play a part in making it ever-so-slightly closer to whole. If you are someone who creates, in whatever medium or mode your creation manifests itself, then deep down inside, you know this, and it haunts you. Because, honestly, who the hell are you to stand up and demand to have your voice heard? Why should anyone bother to listen, and if they do, what, if anything, should they take away from it?
Not even Spencer Krug, veteran of some of the past decade’s most beloved indie rock institutions, is safe from this creeping doubt. On “The Nightclub Artiste”, the opening track to his latest collaboration with Finnish prog rockers Siinai, Krug deadpans, “You could say it was so good/ It could not be understood,” and then adds for clarification: “Which was another way to say it was so weird/ It doesn’t matter.” Even an artist of Krug’s stature can sometimes wonder if he’s really communicating with anyone. And if that communication isn’t taking place, how long can that artist convince himself that the problem is with everyone else but him?
It’s not hard to imagine the source of Krug’s anxieties. Roughly a decade-and-a-half on from his early work with Frog Eyes, his career remains a confounding one. Along with his once and current partner in crime Dan Boeckner, he put together a decade-defining debut for Wolf Parade and then proceeded to burn that decade to the ground with Sunset Rubdown‘s under-appreciated swan song Dragonslayer. Throughout the ’00s, Krug maintained a steady flow of new material with a variety of bands, but over the past half-decade or so, he’s struck out into more insular territory, throwing himself full-tilt into his solo project, Moonface. The project’s central conceit had been to construct each new album around a particular keyed instrument, such as the organ on his debut, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped, or the piano on Julia with Blue Jeans and the City Wrecker EP. This exploratory impulse has led to some undeniably beautiful moments, but after the dizzying heights he’s scaled with previous projects, you can’t help but feel a little like it’s 1994 and you’re watching Michael Jordan play for the Birmingham Barons.
Krug’s first album with Siinai came closest to capturing some of that old grandeur, even if it couldn’t sustain its peaks for the whole of its 45-minute runtime. Heartbreaking Bravery found Krug returning to the sort of sweeping aural panoramas that have endeared him to many, but did so through a peculiar marriage of riff-oriented rock and rough-hewn electronic drone. Those same impulses are equally on display on My Best Human Face, albeit with a bit more polish this time around. While the artists’ first collaboration marinated in an ice water bath, these new songs give off a kind of rosy glow. The insectile whines of songs like “Faraway Light” are a memory. In their place you’ll find the warm-as-a-bowl-of-chicken-soup textures of “The Nightclub Artiste” or the sweeping lunar synth work of “Them Call Themselves Old Punks”.
At its most extreme, the gentility of the production flirts with a kind of ’80s soft rock. The group’s reprise of Krug’s “City Wrecker”, originally conceived as a minimal piano ballad and one of the essential cuts from the Moonface catalog, approaches nearest that limit. With is burbling bass line, glowing synth backdrop, and languid lead guitar, it lands a hair’s breadth from being a Paul Young song. Miraculously, Krug and Siinai fit these sounds — and all the baggage that comes with them — into their aesthetic without slipping into dad rock. As with Heartbreaking Bravery, simplicity remains the guiding principle behind this album. Its songs grow slowly by repetition and accretion rather than sharp dynamic shifts.
At their most exuberant, they achieve a sort of abandon that’s been in short supply in Krug’s more recent work. “Risto’s Riff” (named for Siinai guitarist Risto Joensuu) gains incredible momentum from its titular guitar line and a straightforward verse-chorus pattern. “The Queen of Darkness and Light” siphons a little of the roiling, rumbling atmospheric distortion hovering over Heartbreaking Bravery‘s “Lay Your Cheek on Down” for a similarly majestic closing track. The vibrancy of the music is cut with a healthy dose of Krug’s angst. Through meditations on anguished nostalgia (“City Wrecker”), artistic frustration (“The Nightclub Artiste”, “The Queen of Darkness and Light”), and self-loathing (“Ugly Flower Pretty Vase”), Krug shows he can still turn a phrase like no other.
The unfortunate thing about My Best Human Face is that it will likely be overshadowed by the resurrection of Krug’s flagship band. But while the world is certainly a better place for having Wolf Parade back in it, there’s real action happening here. Human Face contains some of the best and most vibrant music that Krug has been part of in the past five years or more, and will hopefully go a ways towards that nagging voice of self-doubt. For their second at-bat, Krug and Siinai have succeeded in creating a hypnotic and heartfelt work that fully validates the hubris of its creation.
Essential Tracks: “The Nightclub Artiste”, “Them Call Themselves Old Punks”, and “Risto’s Riff”