The Rubens, 0202 – album review

Releasing new music is a tricky business these days, very different from the traditional “best practices” the industry and music fans are used to. Albums are no longer the priority. Musicians’ strength lies now in dropping as many singles as possible to gradually lure new audiences in. Most acts would share two/three songs before the album, then reveal the whole thing, and maybe add another tune as a bonus track after that.

The Rubens got me intrigued when they dropped five (!) singles from their upcoming record before releasing it to the world. Singles indicating a clear shift in the approach to their preferred music genre, I might add. So you’ll understand why I couldn’t help but review their work.

PART 68 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE

The Rubens have been shaking things up on the Aussie music scene for a decade already. In that time, they’ve released four solid albums (including the new one), scored ARIA awards’ nominations, played numerous gigs and festivals, and supported Pink on her 2018 tour Down Under. If someone mentions the band’s name, and you don’t automatically start humming “Hoops”, you can’t call yourself an Aussie music fan at all.

I wasn’t hooked on the sound of the five indie rockers from NSW from day one. It took some getting used to Sam Margin’s vocal timbre. He eventually got me converted into The Rubens’ fan with the second album. I was (and still am) amazed by how smoothly he can switch between the registers, so I always look forward to hearing the band’s new compositions. Amongst the many rock outfits made Down Under, I reckon Sam’s vocals are one of The Rubens’ defining strengths.

But the sonic value of 0202 lies elsewhere, too. The record was released on 12 February 2021, and it boldly introduces a new shade in the band’s sound palette. The one that is less indie rock and more of an adventurous blend of genres. Having heard the singles preceding the album’s release date, I can’t say I’m surprised. But it’s always interesting to see which turn a band decides to take in the end.

For starters, the artwork indicates this new direction already. The choice of bright colours for the singles and record covers, the modern font and even the recent press photos all state pretty clearly: “buckle up ‘coz we’re making some changes”. And that is a good thing. It means you are cautioned to approach the initial listening session with a completely open mind as opposed to “we’re giving you the usual us but better”.

Listening to 0202, I had the impression the record is divided into two parts, though. And we got to know almost the entire first half (minus “Thank You”) before the album’s release.

“Live in Life” was the first single that appeared in 2019 already and went platinum in June the following year. The band shared three more tunes in 2020. “Heavy Weather” and “Time of My Life” even entered the triple J’s Hottest 200. “Masterpiece”, which opens the record, was called a “genre-shifting single” by the Rolling Stone Australia when it dropped in December 2020. Finally, “Muddy Evil Pain” made its debut in the last week of January 2021.

That first part of the record tells a slightly more consistent story. Every song stands firmly on its own, no doubt. But they kind of flow naturally from each other and into the next one, too. The cool blend of rock, pop and the electronic/dancy beats that define this record is also much more visible in that first six songs’ sequence.

“Heavy Weather”, with the fanfare trumpets and a reversed song order (the chorus comes first), definitely stands out here. It ended up at #105 on the triple J’s 2020 countdown, although “ya jokin’, shoulda been higher”, in my view.

I’m also in love with the vocals and piano parts on “Time of My Life”. Any song bearing such title must live up to its expectations. And it does not only that. Though the whole album aims to surprise, this particular track is clear proof that less is more. Sometimes, a simple melody, honest lyrics and classic rock instruments with the right sprinkle of pop are worth more than all the flashy tricks in any muso’s vast sonic arsenal.

The second half of the record seems a little more “random” to me. As if the band didn’t know they were going to create an entire album when they started writing and needed to fill up space (which we know is not the case). So it might just be my impression but here is the “why”.

Let’s take “Holiday” – the longest and most trippy track on the album – as an example. I was slightly sceptical when I heard it for the first time, but – after a few listens – I can sort of relate to its playful appeal. This slightly dreamy tune with “Hawaiian” guitar vibes and syllabic vocal repetitions (think reggae) automatically transports you to a sunny beach, under the palm trees. It makes you wanna grab a drink on the way there, too. But is it consistent with the whole record? I’m not sure.

On the other hand, there’s “Apple” – a pretty, little gem of a song with keyboard parts that remind me of “cosmic dust”. If it wasn’t for the lyrics (“But I drag my feet across coals / While you’re feeding me fire and lies”), the melody would almost feel like a lullaby. And it totally goes with the experimental vibe of 0202.

When it comes to song arrangements, the second part of the record also gives you “Explosions on My Brain” and “Back to Back” – the two most “indie rock” and straightforward tracks. No overly complicated lyrics, super ornate melody or fancy effects. Either one would be my choice for a “pub karaoke” arvo with mates (and that is a compliment since I’m a very bad singer).

The Rubens’ new release is also a “love story” in one of its many layers. So make no mistake, its pre-Valentine’s Day release date was carefully planned. Thankfully, it’s not one of those “hearts and butterflies” kind of albums. It’s rather a diary filled with entries about love’s implications on everyday life. That tale of the many stages you go through in a relationship goes from the “beautiful errors” (“Live in Life”) that “I got (…) wrong” (“Masterpiece”) to “Play back those messages and look for a thread / What was real and what I wish I had said” (“Back to Back”). And if you’re looking for that proper break-up tune, “Thank You” is your go-to song.

For me, the most innovative track on the album is “Muddy Evil Pain” which takes you by surprise from the very start. With a pulsating, uneasy synth, you wouldn’t expect it to be an inspiring anthem about a “bucket of water [that] washes everything”. The song is built on a clear dichotomy: melodic verses meet a simple uptempo/dancy chorus. The phrase “Don’t hold back / Don’t be only living like a heart attack” could easily be everybody’s post-Covid life motto. The song is super fun and interactive – a perfect tune for festival sing-alongs.

Last but not least, the record’s melancholic vibe is amplified by the lockdown footprint of 2020. Even though it was primarily written pre-Corona, the album is very 2020 in that – to a certain extent – it reflects the common fears we’ve all faced since the pandemic started. That was already confirmed by the band in October 2020 when “Sam and Elliot noted that the album comes from the band looking forward past the topsy-turvy nature of the year that everyone has had to go through”. The album’s title is a clever way of expressing those hopes for better days as well.

I second Stack magazine’s opinion that “the cruisy vibe often belies a darker edge”. Obviously, the band couldn’t have predicted that a global disaster would hit in the time between their songwriting (pre-2020) and the album’s production (in 2020). But, coincidentally, you can sense that pandemic anxiety in “Time of My Life” when Sam sings, “Everything I need, never satisfied / This should be the time, this should be the time.” Or in “State of My Mind” with the “Weight of the world on my shoulders” lyrics.

The beautiful outro track, “Party”, also indicates an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty and doubt with the words, “Everyone’s here but I / Just want to be alone”. Surprisingly, though, closing the album with this tune doesn’t leave you with a feeling of bitterness or disappointment. It’s more like a “to be continued” anticipation of what might come next. Especially that the band has shown a completely new side to themselves that I have welcomed with open arms.

It’s also notable that, on the sonic level, the musos “did the recordings (…), engineered it and self-produced a lot of it themselves (…) using (…) everything that they’ve learned over the ten years of making albums”. Plus, they agree that 0202 is “more of a hi-fi record” compared to their previous ones.

The Rubens are not the first group that’s decided to go for a little more pop experimentation in the last few years. It’s a sign of our times. Many forward-thinking bands are trying to appeal to younger audiences, and embracing the electronic vibe is one of the more successful ways to go about it. Testing different waters is also natural progress in every group’s career span. That way the band and their fans are not bored to death with different iterations of the same thing. It might not always work 100%, but taking the risk is what counts in the end.

I’m always down for it when it doesn’t distort the band’s general vibe. And I have to admit The Rubens have stayed true to their signature sound whilst adding the next building block to it which is a fair yet balanced amount of modern beats. So they have every right to say, “we’re proud of this one”.

The Rubens’ fourth studio album, 0202

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Produced by: The Rubens Pty Ltd under exclusive licence to Humming Records

Released: 12 February 2021

12 tracks, 38 mins