The Ruby Suns’ Ryan McPhun made his reputation as a restless world traveler and musical polyglot. His ability to synthesize eclectic musical traditions into compelling indie pop catapulted The Ruby Suns into the ranks of artists like Panda Bear and Vampire Weekend back in 2007. But while McPhun’s continent-hopping ways have not changed since the Suns’ breakout sophomore album, Sea Lion, the returns on his travels have become exponentially less compelling.
Christopher’s press release cites the “icy architecture and sky-high fjords” of Scandinavia as an influence on its unabashedly glossy synth pop, but it’s difficult to hear any growth beyond 2010’s Fight Softly. In fact, nowadays, there’s little, if anything, to set The Ruby Suns apart from the myriad retro-synth pop acts that have come into vogue in recent years. Any trace of the weird, the exotic, or the unpredictable has been meticulously ironed out, seemingly for good.
The album was produced by Chris Coady, the man who sat behind the boards for Gang Gang Dance’s St. Dymphna (among many others). This commonality helps to underscore Christopher’s inadequacy. GGD make music every bit as polished and danceable, and their reputation for dabbling in diverse “world music” traditions is no less formidable than McPhun’s, but their ability to balance sleekness with abrasion makes their records infinitely more rewarding than anything on the last two Suns outings. And Gang Gang Dance actually manage to meaningfully incorporate global sounds and textures into their club bangers. McPhun can tout the Nordic cold and the “gloss-pop” exported from that region as a pedigree, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re left with a record not all that different from the stuff being produced all throughout the English-speaking world.
Thematically, Christopher is an exploration of youthful naiveté and abandon, a rediscovery of self, precipitated by the dissolution of McPhun’s long-term romantic relationship. Such material is more or less the reason that capital “P” pop music exists, but McPhun does a little too good of a job capturing the banal sound and fury of his adolescent narrators. Call me a curmudgeon, but I feel like there’s something a little unseemly about a grown man making pronouncements like “I’ve had enough of your drama” and “You came so far/ From the psychological high school.”
Sadly, whatever may have initially attracted us to The Ruby Suns is, by now, starting to seem like a distant memory. Your willingness to stick with McPhun from here on out depends entirely how much you enjoy listening to music that sounds like a meticulous recreation of 80s dance pop. If pop truly is a desert, as the album’s opening track suggests, then Christopher must constitute at least a few miles of arid, sun-cracked earth.