By Michael Papich
Sunset Rubdown’s Dragonslayer came out five years ago this summer, and a typical music site or an ordinary fan might take the opportunity to reminisce about the album’s merits. How it merged Spencer Krug’s experimental style with a more palatable pop-rock sound for a smoother experience. How it paints a more cohesive and present picture lyrically than any of the bands past releases. How it ended up being the band’s last album, thus allowing for a look back on Sunset Rubdown’s work.
But this is no ordinary music site and I am no typical fan. Instead, it’s much more important to talk about how Dragonslayer secretly tells one long story about a man’s life, death, and subsequent travel through the afterlife to find a way to come back to the land of the living. Is this crazy? Is this looking too deeply into things? Let’s find out. It can’t be any more improbable than Radiohead’s Kid A predicting 9/11.
The album starts with “Silver Moons.” A pretty, soft tune about accepting that past memories cannot be relived and that the time comes to give certain things up. We get lines like “I think maybe these days are over, over now/I believe in growing old with grace/I believe she only loved my face.” But in the context of the theory, imagine these lines being said from the perspective of a dying person. Yes, the album starts at the initial death of our hero. All of “Silver Moons” seems to point to this. The lines even point to some sort of overlying community or quest, with Krug singing “I’m passing the baton from the old mare to the fawn/It was out of line but it was fun/Didn’t you love the part right before the dawn?”
What was the quest? Let’s take a stab in the dark and say it was a quest to slay a dragon. The hero seems to have previous experience with such quests before his death, as he notes “There were parties here in my honor/til you sent me away.” The presence of a dragon itself is noted in later songs as well, but in “Silver Moons,” Krug says, “Gone are the days bonfires make me think of you/Looks like the prophecy came true.” Dragons breathe fire, people. And our hero was likely not alone in the slaughter, as he follows these lines by surveying his surroundings with, “You are a fallen tree, he is a fallen tree/How old are you, no, how old are you?”
Directly after “Silver Moons” is “Idiot Heart,” a more fanciful song that is also about reminiscing about one’s life and experiences, with the same sense of regret and apology that hung over “Silver Moons.” At a surface level, “Idiot Heart” reminisces about death, with the ending line repeated over and over again: “I hope that you die in a decent pair of shoes/You’ve got a lot more walking to do where you’re going to.” This would point to an afterlife and the protagonist noting that there is more after one dies. But going further, the song starts with repeated messages and directions. “No, I was never much of a dancer/But I know enough to know you’ve got to move/Your idiot body around” and “You can’t, can’t settle down/until the Icarus in your blood/in your blood drowns.” Both of these could be seen as the rules for existing after death. The first is a basic push to be conscious and the second is to be calm and accept one’s fate as a deadman and not be foolhearty.
The song flows in a slow direction that would seem to point to this. The directions come at the beginning and our hero also says that “If I found you in this city and called it Paradise/I say I love you but I hate this city and I’m no prize.” Krug’s character is resisting being death, clinging to the memories of someone else – likely the same person he apologized to in “Silver Moons.” Then, as the song speeds up significantly, we hear “look at you go!/Oh look at you go!” The protagonist has accepted death and enters into some sort of magnificent afterlife existence, which leads him to end the song with the lines about having a long way to go after dying.
Not so crazy now, is it? Yeah, yeah, let’s keep that suspension of disbelief going because up next is “Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!” Here is where the story of our hero gets considerable depth. For, as the album’s conclusion tells us, he escapes death, and the rest of the albums reminds up repeatedly of difficult and powerful memories in his past. He sings, “My God, I miss the way we used to be/So here’s a photograph for you to hold/It’s my picture right before I got old.” The protagonist’s relationship seems to be more than just fleeting love for the person in question, whom the song suggests is the Greek goddess Artemis.
Our hero’s emotions reach a high, mythical level, as he asks “Will we ever find out way into Cassandra’s gaze again?” and “Where have you been, Erato?” Cassandra was a mythical Greek prophecy-maker and Erato is the Greek muse of romantic poetry, so Krug’s song suggests that the relationship between the two crumbled apart as the hero cries out for these imposing figures to try and put it back together again.
The album follows a mixed timeline from this point on, as some songs, like “Apollo,” show our protagonist’s memories flooding back, while others show him continuing his journey through the dead, now angling for a way back to the world of the living. This is where Black Swan comes in on the album. “Black Swan” is a much darker and feverish song and is further from any pop sensibilities than anything on Dragonslayer. This could represent a deeper level of the afterlife for our hero as the song repeatedly talks about a palace and a kingdom, as well as a king and queen.
Is the hero consulting the leaders of the Paradise city of the dead for a way to escape? Does the fact that I’ve listened to this album eight times in a row with no REM sleep contribute anything to this theory? Whoooo let’s keep going!
The force present in this song seems to be quite powerful and have something to do with the dead, as it taunts the hero about his own fears about the supernatural, saying, “There was a rumor of a ghost in the bedroom/Hanging in and around the bed/But by the time the moon rose, you had taken off your clothes/And had the pillow under your head.” Later on, the force tells a brief story that can relate to the hero himself, saying, “There was the matador who said he would have you/If you could only give it up and walk away.” The force, or the king of the dead, whatever it is, says that the matador had his accomplishments, like the hero, who killed dragons and other beasts instead of bulls. But the force goes on to say, “And now it’s half destroyed/And you are half destroyed/I see you running down a washed out road/I see you running between the dream and the void.”
A warning: the ruin that faced that bull killer is now being faced by the dragon slayer and he is trying to tackle a “dream” of returning to life and possibly making up with those in his life and “the void.” And given that our hero is already dead, there is little mystery around “the void.” And like the directions our hero receives in “Idiot Heart,” in “Black Swan” he is advised that “My heart is a kingdom/Where the king is a heart/And my heart is king.”
Up next is another song mixing memories with the journey through death, “Paper Lace.” He hears that, “She will be tired/But she’ll be glad/When you go back/To your good home.” A positive sentiment, but as the song goes on, the reality of our hero’s relationship with Artemis or whoever he is seeking becomes more cloudy. Krug sings,” And when she’s done dancing with everyone/She will go back to your good home/She will be tired from loving everyone/But she’ll be glad that you’re back home.” While our hero was both out of her life and dead, whoever he was with has had her own life with her own relationships.
But the song goes even further, showing that much of the blame goes on the dragon slayer for his obsession with quests, as “There’s nothing left inside the room you’ve filled/With lion skins and laurels.” The problems might be more emotional and structural in nature as well, as Krug sings, “There was no way you could have known/About the things she didn’t know she couldn’t trust.”
At this point I question whether I’m in reality or in this strange land between worlds the hero is in. This is taking a lot out of me. I should go to sleep. Is this why Spencer Krug’s other albums are just about his friends that broke up with one another? I need to put on a nice, sturdy pair of shoes in case I don’t make it through the rest of this ramble.
Now the album’s journey takes a turn with “You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II).” Here, the hero seems to both accept that his time with those in his previous life are over and see that he has unrealistic expectations and goals – expectations and goals he still wants to come true. That goal is a return to life, which he pushes for in this song. He wants Artemis or whoever to “go on ahead” while also saying “I’d like to watch the white flash of your heels/As they take turns breaking the desert heat/To beckon me in languages I’ve never learned.” He has hopes that they can both go forward too, wishing that “On the way decide what mendings of your will/You’re willing to forgive.”
The second half of the songs kicks up considerably and our protagonist’s hopes soar and he targets his own personal hopes to come back to life, singing, “See the sirens and the lizards lick their tongues behind the stage/See the actor keep a ritual to keep them all at bay/He would like to come home naked without war paint on his face.” Dragons are lizards, people. Warpaint, quest, dragon, dragonslayer, album, sleep, NASA, holographic principle, okay! Back to the piece.
Now we have our hero’s actual return to the land of the living. Like how Idiot Heart documented his descent, so does “Nightingale/December Song” illustrate his ascension. The song’s overall melody is graceful and lifting and Krug sings about his relationship to another person, likely the protagonist’s special person who appears throughout the album, in an epiloguic sense. That’s not a real word, but Shakespeare made up plenty of words. Let’s talk about the eerie similarities between Richard III and the presidency of Gerald Ford.
Okay, focus and get through this. So in “Nightingale/December Song,” he tells her, “You are too hot for me/I am too slow for you/You are a fast explosion and I’m the embers/You need the one who slowly burns, and burns to stay alive.” While the hero was blinded by his constant quests, he now understands that he needed to be more grounded to the world and to reality. He also talks about fire the entire song, like in Silver Moons, and on the album’s last song “Dragon’s Lair,” he talks about the sun. I’m jumping ahead a bit, but stay with me. It’s also worthwhile to note that Apollo is associated with the sun and Artemis is associated with the moon.
Alright, let’s get right to the last song. “Dragon’s Lair” shows the hero now back and alive, while also giving some overviews of his life before being killed by the dragon. The very first lines of the song harken back to “Silver Moons,” where he gets killed. “I’m sorry that I’m late/I went blind/I got confetti in my eyes/I was held up at yesterday’s parties/I was needed in the congo line.” Silver Moons opens with “Confetti floats away like dead leaves in the wagon’s wake,” and later on he tells the woman in question “Over are the days where the congas make your hair.”
There’s a fair amount of symbolism here that fits in nicely to the story’s plot. The “lateness” is being a disembodied spirit in the land of the dead. “Confetti” was there when the hero died, so whether it’s actual celebrations or a misinterpretation of flailing innards, who’s to say? “Yesterday’s parties” could be either the gathering of the dead or the quest itself. And all the conga/congo stuff is just…they’re in both songs. Are you with me or against me?
Wow, “Dragon’s Lair” is rife with evidence for this theory. Maybe I’m not going insane after all. Or I’m so far gone that I’m believing my own lies. The song goes on to say, “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/You’re not a widow yet.” He is saying that he’s not dead, folks.
Up next we’ve got more for the whole Artemis theory, with the protagonist noting that “This one’s for the critics and their disappointed mothers/For the cupid and the hunter/Shooting arrows at each other.” Artemis was a hunter herself and notably a bow user as well.
But as the song goes on, it seems that our hero wants to continue working to kill the dragon. And the song makes it pretty clear that he was trying to kill a dragon, especially given this whole stanza: “If you are sharpening your scissors, I am sharpening my scissors/And I am sharpening my sword/So you can take me to the dragon’s lair/Or you can take me to Rapunzel’s windowsill/Either way it is time for a bigger kind of kill.”
Why? Well this guy seems to kill a lot of monsters anyway so he might just be a maniac. But he also mentions that his journeys, both in the world of the living and possibly in the world of the dead have given him an insight into the potential that the dragon can bring to the world, saying “I have seen into the wasteland/Oh, the future/Oh, the future of us all/Of dead, dead leaves last fall.” In Silver Moons, he compares the confetti to dead leaves, and if the confetti is actually viscous insides, then boy, that future sounds pretty bad.
So there we go. There’s a lot of common imagery between songs, the storyline works out pretty well, and we had fun learning. But don’t just take my word for it. Take my word for it and listen to the album yourselves.