The Ruby Suns' founder and only consistent member, Ryan McPhun has seemed to use his band's kaleidoscopic pop platform as a sounding board for his life experiences. Early albums centered on themes of travel and discovery, filtering international rhythms through woolly effects-heavy indie and rushing through the doors of sample-pop that Animal Collective opened in the mid-2000s. Released in 2010, Fight Softly saw him reconfiguring the project with a synth-heavy bedroom electro sound, dropping some of the freakier elements for digital sheen and subsequently dropping all previous collaborators, opting to record the album entirely by himself. With fourth album Christopher, the Ruby Suns' transformation into a fully realized electro-pop group is complete, with ten enormous tracks further blurring the already hard-to-discern line between indie sounds and Top 40 pop contenders. It's hard to tell what this amping up of production and embrace of pop signifies in McPhun's personal life, but there's a sense of heavy changes afoot throughout the album. The remarkably improved production is handled by Chris Coady (Beach House, Grizzly Bear), who takes McPhun's formerly busy sonic landscapes and manicures them without subtracting much from the always crowded songs. Multiple tracks of electronic drums and swirling synth lines are stacked up in pristine piles, making room for huge choruses and vocodered vocals. The production is impressive, but unfortunately only works when the songwriting rises to the occasion. Album opener "Desert of Pop" is a standout, telling a surprisingly naked account of a starstruck McPhun meeting pop idol/obvious crush Robyn and making an ass of himself while trying to play it cool. The song's multitude of hooks rides over a Pet Shop Boys-approved beat and the entire production just soars. Similar nostalgic greatness is achieved on "In Real Life," evoking all the quirky subtleties of the '80s electro-pop hits that filled John Hughes movie soundtracks. The rest of the album loses steam quickly, turning in dragging and uninspired tracks like "Starlight" and "Jump In." Mining some of the same nostalgic territory as M83, but absent the urgency or restraint that makes their best work so vital, the weak tracks on Christopher seem particularly forgettable. There's a vague sense throughout the album that some hard-fought personal growth in McPhun's life is driving the dramatic shifts in this set of songs, but rarely are the tunes themselves direct enough to connect on the emotional levels they seem to be aiming for. That said, the occasional burst of incredible, disposable pop goes a long way, but sadly not long enough to make Christopher an entirely engaging experience.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas