The Ruby Suns
[Sub Pop, 2013]
Jeff Pearson, January 29, 2013
Listen: “Kingfisher Call Me”
The fact that The Ruby Suns open their fourth full-length record, Christopher, with a track like “Desert Of Pop” is a very telling sign that something has changed for Ryan McPhun. Starkly different from anything the New Zealand outfit has put out to date, the track teeters between four-on-the-floor electro pop and the somewhat quirky experimentalism they have been known for to this point. Though there could be a specific recipient to this gushing pop explosion, McPhun seemingly dedicates the track to pop music, how more specifically his newfound appreciation for the merits of it, and shows he intends to throw his hat into the ring with Christopher. It’s a bold an interesting way to kick the record off, but really the only sensible one; such a drastic change stylistically surely needs an explanation and there’s none better than when McPhun says, “When I was twenty-five I heard you’re number one / We weren’t acquainted but thought about it, it sounded fun / Flower among the weeds is what you are / Cold glass of water in the desert of pop.” He has seemingly traversed the somewhat volatile world of pop music and come out with a new perspective of it. The entirety of Christopher is the celebration of making it out of that experience alive.
McPhun and The Ruby Suns have achieved a moderate amount of success over the years with well-received, independently pushed records Sea Lion and The Ruby Suns, along with their 2010 Sub Pop debut, Fight Softly, but none of those albums, firmly rooted in the world-beat indie niche they comfortably occupied, indicated that their sound would burst into vibrant technicolor. There is a sense of immediacy throughout Christopher, where it almost feels any of the shimmering hooks that fill the record to its brim could be McPhun’s last. His voice has never sounded better; each track on Christopher is navigated confidently and close to the lines of conventional melodicism, highlighting the fact that McPhun really can be a pop singer if he so desires. Despite the complete 180 degree turn that the music has taken, long-time fans of The Ruby Suns project will find a lot to hold onto.
One of the most impressive things about Christopher is, despite its outward straightforwardness, McPhun’s ear for experimentalism and fascinating texturing plays a big role. Sure, on the surface, a song like “Dramatikk” is a slow-burning synth pop ballad, but it is colored with captivating layers of spacy keyboards and thick strands of bass that put the track a little bit of context away from being an ecstasy-eating, wub-loving clubber’s dream. It’s a very nuanced record in all facets, and as McPhun says, “We’ve had enough of your drama,” it carries just as much emotion as when Mary J. Blige conveyed the same message twelve years ago with “No More Drama;” it just now has a twenty-first century neon sheen.
Ultimately the ever-present artistry of presenting McPhun’s intricacies in this compact pop format make Christopher compelling on multiple listens as well as the first–when surprise is the main emotion fueling the behind-the-steering-wheel dance parties. Tracks like “Dramatikk” and “Kingfisher Call Me” serve as breaks in the high-energy affair, but also serve as stand-outs. When McPhun allows these tracks to breathe a bit, the space surrounding the icy synthesizers and bright vocal performance serves as a point of interest; the tracks are a healthy respite from the pop maximalism that pervades most of the record, and ultimately aid in making Christopher more of a complete record.
As a lover of pop maximalism, however, the tracks that I gravitate more toward are those where the energy is through the roof, packed with off-kilter club rhythms and overall gaiety. Late-album highlight, “Starlight,” is McPhun’s brightest moment on Christopher; jungle rhythms and Fletch-style chase scene synth bursts propel the track ever-forward while it picks up steam. McPhun seems to stumble upon the hook of, “We won’t ever, ever, ever have this life again,” each time through the progression of the song, making it feel almost effortless. It all acts as an avalanche of sound that picks up subtleties all along the way, and after a funky breakdown, McPhun spins the chorus into a key change that shows both his penchant for taking risks and just how far a little effort can go in pop music. The shifted key, intensifying a dance track with the ease of a flick of thE wrist, is one of the many complexities of Christopher that elevates the record into its own realm of pop music.
It is attention to and appreciation for the nuances like this one that older fans might need to take away in order to digest the differences in Christopher. It is a record that, especially if you’re listening to The Ruby Suns for the first time, is immediately gratifying and most of all, easy to enjoy. McPhun seems to understand the push against change in the music industry, and also the necessity for it as a human, and it’s a fitting touch to bookend the record with the confessional “Desert Of Pop” opener and perhaps even more confessional “Heart Attack” closer. McPhun ends the record with the comment, “That’s not the kind of people that we are / We are far away from you,” making a statement that being stagnant in his art just wasn’t an option.