Album art courtesy of Rubblebucket
Review by Caroline Moses
I don’t know whether it’s the hot, muggy weather, the constant, demoralizing insults and outrages of our present reality, or all those planets in retrograde, but it seems like a lot of people have been breaking up lately. According to their Spotify bio, Rubblebucket members Kalmia Traver and Alex Toth are no exceptions. Luckily for us, the end of their romantic relationship is not the end of Rubblebucket, but rather the jumping-off point for Sun Machine, their latest album, released in late August. According to both the Spotify bio and their Facebook page, the record has been three years in the making and was written mostly in response to the end of their longtime partnership. Sun Machine is not a typical breakup album, however; it manages to radiate real joy and Rubblebucket’s usual spirit of play, even as the lyrics get sad or angry. It’s obvious in their music why Traver and Toth were able to stay together for eleven years in the first place.
Rubblebucket’s music has always borrowed from reggae, jazz, and a variety of other genres, in addition to their synth sound, and that hasn’t changed on Sun Machine. Their expansive, brass-heavy backbeat sound makes it nearly impossible to experience this music on a purely lyrical level – Traver’s sax is saying at least as much as her voice on any given song, and for most of the album the music is all we hear from Toth. Even though Traver does almost all of the singing, the album clearly belongs to both of them. In their statement about the record, they refer to their breakup as “conscious uncoupling,” using the phrase popularized by Gwyneth Paltrow and her ex-husband Chris Martin, and that intentional spirit, that self-conscious consciousness, pervades all its songs as well as the spoken interludes, which cover a range of topics from auras to Traver’s recovery from ovarian cancer. In “AURATALK”, the first of these tracks, Traver is responding to a prompt by Toth, and in “HURTALK”, you can hear the conversational patterns of a dialogue in her voice, despite never hearing anyone else speak. “VANTALK” is several seconds of the full touring band laughing and speaking nonsense words, placing the couple within the wider context of their community.
“VANTALK” leads into “Inner Cry,” a love song despite all that’s happened. It begins with a duet between Traver’s saxophone and Toth’s trumpet, which talk to each other and play off of each other in comedic overblown tones that return as the ‘chorus’ of the song, perhaps as demonstrations of the “inner cries” that Traver commands the listener to let out. The refrain that precedes these explosions of horn is “you look really nice, you look really nice, even when you’re out of your mind/especially when you’re out of your mind/let’s let our inner cries out.” With just a few repetitive phrases and the air in their lungs, Rubblebucket manifests both the joy and frustration of togetherness, as well as the combined feelings of anguish and freedom that are unleashed when that togetherness is broken. In the verses, the tone is in striking contrast to the uplift of the choruses; Traver sings a story of captivity and sadness, one that gets interrupted by walks to the harbor with the song’s “you”, presumably Toth. The verses themselves feel as though they’re being interrupted by the refrains and horn breaks, and one gets the sense listening to the song that happy memories of the relationship are inserting themselves into what was supposed to be a somber song. Even when it would be easier to demonize your former partner or to say that there was nothing lost, in reality most relationships, even ones that aren’t working, have good moments, and “Inner Cry” recognizes the complexity of that pain.
“Fruity,” a song earlier in the album, similarly remembers fondly the love of their relationship alongside mourning its end. It opens with Traver grieving alone: “I said I’d make it to the party, but I’ve got a lot going on/the lioness gave a feast for 40 of her body, then slept on the ground till a flower grew out.” The understatement of the first line juxtaposed with the experience of total loss and sacrifice in the second is what makes it so relatable; no one wants to say how they’re feeling, especially when others are trying to have a good time, and the vague excuses that we all use to mean that we’re feeling sad, anxious, or otherwise upset sometimes themselves take on this meaning and become their own expression of deep feeling. Rubblebucket’s music sounds like a party no matter where it’s playing, but “Fruity” takes a break from that, much like Traver in this first line, opting for a softer synth sound, a slower pace, and even a quieter and more polished brass line. Another song that references the pair going on long walks through New York City at night, the song is in some ways about taking the long way around, whether it’s through a park or on the more metaphorical journey of moving on – the chorus goes, “let’s not wait, or let’s wait, no hurry to fall in love,” and the title seems to be an old term of endearment. There’s a sense in Traver’s voice and in her words that she felt that she had given assurance of a permanence she couldn’t provide; she apologizes in the song, as well as repeating several times “I promised with my eyes and I know that.” Traver states in the second verse, “I promised that we’d ride the golden blanket to heaven/but I’m sorry, Fruity, I must just find the Earth again,” and multiple times she references a sense of losing herself or of their relationship turning them into one person. This line is where she clearly expresses her need to leave.
The idea of people becoming “one thing”, either spiritually or as a metaphor for sex, appears in another song as well, “Party Like Your Heart Hurts.” This song subverts the listener’s expectations of someone bringing someone else home from a bar: “They went home together and they held hands all night/they fed the cats and watched the fish swim circles/they kissed and kissed until the dawn’s first light came/and then there was just one of them, suspended animation.” While it’s up to interpretation what this last line is meant to convey, clearly Traver and Toth are playing with the meaning of a “one-night stand” by making it something essentially innocent. Perhaps the intention of the pick-up couldn’t be followed through on because sadness was lingering. This is borne out in the chorus, which opens, “you’re gonna find a place to hide and party like your heart hurts.” Similarly to in “Inner Cry,” the choruses are noisy and raucous eruptions out of a quieter musical environment in the verses, although the horns are not playing a duet in this song, instead each attempting to play their own lines while still stuck on each other. This song leads into “Fruity,” so it makes sense that Traver is skipping out on a party: the last one was unsatisfying.
One other recurring motif in the album is masturbation, both literal and more metaphorical. This first shows up within the first minute of the album, on the opening track “What Life Is,” with the line “it’s a ghost town/temptations/with your sex dreams/loud masturbator.” I’m not sure how to make sense of this line, but it appears in the context of Traver singing about re-learning the basics of life, including how to fall asleep, presumably in a newly empty bed. The first half of the song is mostly a list of things like this that we do without particularly thinking about them until they come into the foreground, and then the song explodes at 2:18 into a broader sound musically and a new topic lyrically: that it’s easy to feel small in a big city and being in love mitigates this feeling by creating a smaller world of two people, buoying you when times get tough or existential dread creeps in. Masturbation appears again in the next song, “Donna,” in which Traver sings about a crush on a woman named Donna, while complaining that she is somehow only theoretical: “The bright light of your perfect smile/gets me up at 12, gets me touching myself/but when I open up my eyes/I’m alone and amazed, is it proof that I’m crazy?” The idea of Donna being a figment of Traver’s imagination shows up again in the chorus, where she repeats “you exist in my head”. Finally, it appears in a less literal form in the last song on the album, “Habit Creature.” In “Habit Creature,” Traver is chastising someone, maybe Toth, maybe herself, maybe everyone, for not being in touch with their own emotions and personality, especially in the chorus: “Habit creature, you’ve got to touch yourself/to feel what you’re feeling/It’s nice to meet you, but you should meet yourself/to begin what we call healing.” This song really interrogates its target about their inability to be with themselves and their habit of assuming that it’s other people’s job to keep them happy and entertained. Nonetheless, there’s a sense of sympathy towards this person who is so unable to figure out how they’re feeling and what makes them happy that they need to constantly bother others about it. Perhaps to reinforce the detachment described in the lyrics, there are a lot of outer space-like synth sounds in this song, combined with fast, loud drumming and enthusiastic horns in the choruses and in the final instrumental break that caps off the record.
“Sunlit Sparks (I Won’t Break You)” is the only song in which we hear Toth sing. It starts with an 80s-style drum and synth landscape, into which Toth’s voice appears with, “In love despite last night/at times sublime, but we keep falling backwards/Oh, the things that hide in the sunlight.” It strikes me as notably similar to the statements that Traver makes in “Fruity,” that sometimes cold truth is better than false warmth, and that maybe over their eleven years together Toth and Traver got used to versions of each other that they had been imagining, in the same way that Traver conjures a crush in “Donna.” In the choruses, Traver repeats the phrase “I don’t want to break you” in a heavily auto-tuned warble. Even the horns are sterilized to an auto-tuned, distant sound. Still, this song is also about their continued friendship and musical partnership; in the second verse, Toth says, “I’ll take the long way home, and I hope to see you there.”
Finally, it would be impossible to review this record without talking about “Lemonade,” the only song that expresses real anger over the relationship and its end. Ironically, it’s also one of the most fun songs on the album. Punctuated by bass wobbles, spoken repetition of the lyrics by Toth, a marimba, and a wailing, 70-second trumpet solo over a background argument between the couple, “Lemonade” is less “it’s not you, it’s me” and more “it’s definitely you”, with lines like, “Can you help me jog my memory/did I make you mean or were you always that way?,” “you were like the American dream/made me want things I don’t really need,” and “for real, this is goodbye.” The lyrics and Traver’s irritated voice do a lot of work at painting an emotional landscape, but the whole song builds to Toth’s trumpet solo, which serves as an extended primal scream that no words or electronic sound could communicate.
Eleven years is a long time to be with someone, and the end of that must be identity-shattering. It’s a length of time I have trouble even imagining; if I were in a relationship that long, I would have to have been ten years old when it began. To communicate hurt that deep is one thing, and the divorce album is a whole genre among certain sad regions of indie rock. Rubblebucket would have every reason and right to make their “uncoupling” album all pain, but they didn’t. Instead, they’ve chosen to throw us all a party, hurting hearts or not, where they can engage meaningfully with their negative feelings, and their positive ones too. In a way, they’ve done what everyone wishes they could do after a breakup: take the chance not just to introspect, but to actually share how they feel about what they’ve found with the person to whom it’s most relevant. Through Sun Machine, Traver and Toth gave themselves the chance to integrate their post-mortem feelings into the narrative of what the relationship was, and to know that the other person has too. Pretty heady stuff for the rest of us who don’t “try to have our auras be with us even when the train is coming,” but maybe it’s something we can aspire to – at least until Venus goes direct again.