In May, I went to the barren warehouse district in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn to see Moonface, Spencer Krug’s latest music project. I walked there from my friend Dave’s house, along wide pavements that contained nothing - no people, no benches, no parked cars, no bins, no street lights - along streets that were bordered by buildings with walls painted solid, chalky red, over a little bridge where, half way across, I could see down the canal in one of those weird long views that I used to see when I walked over the bridges in Berlin as the sun came up, one of those views you only get when you are half way across one of the numbered avenues in Manhattan, view clear for streets and streets, the sky not blocked but framed by buildings.
I arrived at the venue. Spencer Krug came on. It was just him and a piano. He sat down on the stool with a glass of what, based on the colour and volume, looked like apple juice, but was more likely to be a really very huge drink of whiskey.
He said, “I’m going to play some new songs tonight.” Most of what he played appears on his new album, “Julia With Blue Jeans On”.
The first song was about a drive he and a friend took across the US. It was about how they missed their exit because they were so engrossed in their conversation about their ex-girlfriends.
The second song had three sections. They corresponded to “Barbarian”, “Everyone is Noah, Everyone is the Ark” and “Barbarian II” on his new record. The first section was based around a persistent seesaw interval on the beautiful low notes of the piano. Spencer Krug sang, “I asked you where you want to be buried, and you asked me the name of the town where I was born.” He sang, “I am a barbarian, sometimes”, and tears came to my eyes.
The second section was, notionally, about Noah and the Ark. This section, and its relationship to the rest of the song, was an excellent summary of Spencer Krug’s entire musical catalogue. A stream of new melodies that beget more new melodies that beget more new melodies. Extended metaphors that, like Bob Dylan (“Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands, with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves, let me forget about today until tomorrow”) combine the fantastical and the corporeal, and use the everyday details as a way to let the listener into the abstract flights of fancy: “If I am an animal I am one of the few that is self destructive. I have chewed through my beautiful muscle, I have chewed through my beautiful narrative to get out of Canada and into your door.”
But there are new elements, too. The third section of the song was a reprise. The seesaw interval and the barbarian and the tender burial wishes all came back.
The third song followed the same structure as the second: the first section introducing the themes, the second section going off into the wild, before leading into the third section’s reprise. Krug really let go at this point, bellowing, “Someone’s been writing your name all over the walls”, and singing “Love me for the way I used to be. Or, love me for the way that the skin tore open.” This song, “Love the House You’re In”, is on the album, but, strangely, this third part of the song is not.
He said, “Last night I played at, uh, Hamilton University about four and a half hours north of here in upstate New York. And there was literally a toga party going on in the same room. At one point, a woman went by in a shopping cart pushed by her friends. So, this is nicer.”
He began the fourth song by saying, “So, a lot of these are cheesy love songs and this is another one.” He ended it with a sheepish shrug of his shoulders.
He said, “It’s getting hot, better strip down”, and began taking off his shirt. Some people whooped and he said, “There’s a t-shirt under here, Ladies.” He paused. “This isn’t Hamilton University.”
The fifth song showed another new element of Spencer Krug’s music. He seems to have become a really excellent pianist. There are syncopations, trills, off-rhythm rolls that build to far more complex constructions than the medieval marching music of his keyboard playing for Sunset Rubdown and Wolf Parade. The instrumentals have elongated and become as important and complex as the parts with singing.
The seventh song was really very charming. “I’d say the only word worth singing is a name. I’d say the only name worth singing is not God, it’s you. Julia. As beautiful and simple as the sun. Julia with blue jeans on. I see you there, at the bottom of the stairs.”
The eighth and ninth songs, the last two he played, are, most regrettably, not on his album.
Before beginning the eighth song, Krug said, “This is about moving to Helsinki. It’s about a few other things too.” It includes the lines, “I didn’t know that my old life would become a swarm of swallows thinning out against the Aurora Borealis. That’s right, I said, ‘A swarm of swallows thinning out against the Aurora Borealis’.” Nine months ago, I moved to New York from England. The swarm of swallows thinning out describes perfectly the feeling of the past slipping away to leave only a future.
The ninth song was a rolling mass. For ten minutes, it got faster and more reckless and more glorious. It went, “There is a an ageing arm across a naked waist. There is a fallen tree against a perfect January snow. And that’s as spiritual as I need to be.” And, “Breakwater to the sea, just strong enough to hold back the waves as they roll in. And I should have told you sooner that I’ll be relying on you, baby. And I should have told you sooner I think you’re just like me. And I guess I should have told you I am sometimes just an arm hanging out a window on the highway in the sun. Or a fallen tree against a January snowbank. Or a break water to the sea.”
What this doesn’t convey, what lyrics never convey, is the way all this felt as the music got faster and faster and faster and faster, taking the thematic repetitions and rolling them up into something so rich it was almost unbearable.
I recorded the set on the shitty speaker on my phone. I have listened to the tinny mp3s countless times over the last six months. I have not been able to get the gig out of my head.
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