With each successive Ruby Suns album, frontman and focal point Ryan McPhun has narrowed his focus and watered down his charm. On the group’s 2008 breakout, Sea Lion, the now-New Zealander explored schizoid psych-pop laced with tropical hues; half of the fun was getting lost in the impressionist swirl, never knowing what off-the-wall instrumental flourish or stoned hook might pop up next. But the band’s straight-laced follow-up, 2010’s Fight Softly, downplayed McPhun’s world-music flair and experimental edge in favor of tightly constructed (and largely uniform) synth-pop.
Compared to his early work, McPhun’s fourth studio effort, Christopher, hardly sounds like it was made by the same person. It functions as Fight Softly’s hugely polished, hi-fi sequel, removing every trace of the quirkiness and eclecticism that made his first albums so compelling. Every track uses the exact same sonic template: massive synth pads, fizzy drum machines, and new-wave melodies, harnessing Chris Coady’s expansive engineering as a headfirst springboard into Lake Reverb.
And that’s half the trouble: McPhun may be a gifted melodist (and the proud owner of a handsome falsetto), but his songs constantly struggle for air. The glitzy “Jump In” and soft-rock closer “Heart Attack” work well individually, but lumped into the album’s frustrating one-note pace, they end up squashed by the same homogenous digital-reverb glow; they’re quality songs in search of a quality mix.
Select moments manage to rise above the synth haze: Inspired by a meeting with Swedish electro-pop warrior Robyn, “Desert Of Pop” is a campy, heartfelt tribute to her hypnotic musical gravitas. “Dramatikk” is the album’s definitive heartbeat, as McPhun ventures to the dreamiest parts of his falsetto over a sparse synth arrangement, with melodic runs that feel equally inspired by ’90s R&B and modern electro-pop. Based on these highlights, McPhun’s diminishing returns haven’t dried out entirely. But even if Christopher is almost always functional, it’s almost never essential.