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Rubblebucket’s “Sun Machine” is a Strange and Beautiful Paradox

WRSU Rubblebucket Review Image

The conventional idea of a soulmate is eternally endearing but instinctively impractical, and it really ought to be left in Disney movies. The idea that you could love one person and have that be enough for your entire life isn’t impossible, but at the same time it doesn’t seem incredibly likely. Marriage in America is a crumbling institution (anything with a near 50% failure rate is not working) and monogamy is being questioned more than ever.  

Sure, that’s an alarmingly negative way to start a review, but it’s a breakup album, so give me some time to provide the proper context.

Rubblebucket was formed in 2008 by Alex Toth and Annakalmier Traver, two music majors who met and subsequently fell in love at The University of Vermont. From ‘08 to to 2015 they toured the country and played with acts like Arcade Fire and Questlove, all while in a committed relationship. It’s basically an instant indie fairytale.

In the summer of ‘15 they settled down to create their fourth album, experimenting by deciding to live separately. Distance must have made the heart grow fonder because Alex proposed to Kalmier the following month, and she said yes. The perfect story right? Well, not exactly.

In what must have been a whirlwind few months, the couple went from betrothed to broken. In the spring of 2016, Kalmier and Alex “consciously uncoupled” after an 11-year relationship. The task of detangling personal and professional lives was undoubtedly tumultuous and confusing. Through it all, this painful process that produced their newest release Sun Machine, walking in the Fleetwood Mac tradition of sticking through dysfunction to create.

Although many would make fun of the haughty language they use to describe their break up (older folks would probably call it millennial bullshit), it makes sense after hearing the project. The overtly negative connotation of the term “break up” doesn’t reveal itself in the music, and they provide a foil to albums like David Longstreth’s self-titled Dirty Projectors project, made after his split from long-time band member Amber Coffman. While expertly crafted, the record dripped with a resentment that could make it grating after some time. Rubblebucket doesn’t let that sentiment doesn’t seep through.  

Letting intimate pain give way to music, Rubblebucket describes Sun Machine as “a strange and beautiful paradox…a breakup record imbued with each partner’s palpable love for the other.” By and large, they’re right, with deeply contemplative lyrics buried under a cohesive sonic palette, pop-influenced indie rock that liberally applies horns and funk-tinged guitars.

The mix alleviates the gravity of the words for the first few runs through the album, letting listeners have fun with the music before having to come to terms with a heart-wrenching reckoning 11 years in the making. Bubbly synths cover up sobering questions like “Did I make you mean, or were you always that way?” (“Lemonade”) at first, with the words taking on more weight the more you listen. That’s Sun Machine’s sleight of hand, a practical distraction that lets each track’s true intention slowly unravel over time.

The lyrics read as arguments that have been had a million times, charting a map from the relationship’s beginning to its end. “Party Like Your Heart Hurts” seems to portray the conventional origins of an uncommon union with lines like “At the bar, he said: What do you do?” The strained vocals on the chorus sound exactly like the title, an exhilarating form of escapism through feelings that resemble love.

The narrative seems to come full circle a few tracks later with the sprightly “Annihilation Song”. Cutting to the chase, the song starts with sprawling saxophone riffs and the words “Yeah I know you’ve got to go, but I was looking forward to waking up with you.” Over the course of the track, the duo sing in tandem of the destruction of their relationship, demonstrating some rare emotional intelligence in the incredibly wistful world of indie music.

The album closes with the song “Habit Creature”, an ode to the routine of relationships that many find themselves living in. It’s forward thinking, looking for a way out of the cycle of emotional reliance on a significant other and turning that into self-reliance. The chorus rings out “It’s nice to meet you, but you should meet yourself/To begin what we call healing.” The circumstances surrounding the creation of this album are dire, but the end result is a glimpse into the everyday joys and pain of love and it’s dissolution.

Recommended tracks: “Donna”, “Fruity”, “Annihilation Song”

Review By: Jordan Levy