Destroyer are something of an enigma. Best described as indie rock – though that’s such a broad term these days that it doesn’t really tell you anything. They’re from Vancouver, which is probably the best city I’ve ever visited. They’ve been releasing albums since 1996. Many of them have been very well received by critics. And yet, hardly anyone has a fucking clue who they are.
Dan Bejar occasionally plays with The New Pornographers, which as close as he has come to mainstream success. But it’s as the Destroyer frontman that he has become one of my favourite artists over the past year.
There was a lot of hype on the internet last year about their album Kaputt, and rightly so. Though I originally avoided it for a few weeks – I assumed it was heavy metal – it very quickly became not only my favourite of the year but one of my all-time favourite albums. In what was a brilliant year for music, Kaputt stood above the rest.
So I hunted down the rest of their music. The first I bought – from the U.K., because there didn’t seem to be a single copy for sale in Australia – was Rubies.
You know that feeling you get when you listen to an album for the first time and it’s everything you hoped for and more? That’s how I felt upon listening to Rubies. Eschewing the dreamy pop that would come on Kaputt, Rubies shoots for classic rock, and lands somewhere beyond it, thanks to unique Destroyer flourishes and Bejar’s penchant for head-spinning songwriting.
At 10 tracks and 54 minutes, it’s longer than your typical LP, but not for a moment does it outstay its welcome. Pitchfork argued otherwise, but there isn’t a single sub-par track on the record, though admittedly the first half is better than the first.
Perhaps – in fact, most certainly – the reason Destroyer hasn’t come even remotely close to mainstream success or even crossover is because of Bejar. The majority of music listeners don’t particularly enjoy being challenged; Bejar throws curveballs constantly.
There’s the completely nonsensical lyrics that are as endearing as they are entertaining – never has reading a lyric booklet been so much fun. The intertextuality – most of Destroyer’s songs contain multiple references to other Destroyer songs, not to mention the myriad of film, literature, music and art references for the keen-eyed.
Such dense lyricism would normally make it very tough for a listener to appreciate a record on more than a musical level but the amazing thing about Bejar’s lyrics are that they manage to be affecting, in spite of themselves. Take the manic opening lines on “Painter in Your Pocket”.
And I’m reminded of the time that I was blinded by the sun
It was a welcome change from the sight of you hanging like a willow off the arm of yet another visionary, profitous East Van. punk
Under all the verbosity, it all comes back to the same most Destroyer tracks do – girls. There’s something in that that everyone can relate to – no one enjoys seeing the person they like with someone else, in this case a well-to-do bad boy from East Vancouver.
“Painter in Your Pocket” is a break-up/unrequited love affair song, and a brilliant one at that. After the strained vocals of that opening passage, Bejar sings yearningly to the object of his affection over soft drums and a gorgeously simple guitar line. About two-thirds of the way through, it breaks open and becomes one of my favourite indie rock/pop tunes.
The album’s opener, “Rubies”, is nine minutes long and changes tack a number of times. It’s a great example of how Bejar takes what could a simple song and turns it into something more memorable, never allowing the listener to settle.
It begins with guitar distortion and a typically colourful Bejar lyric, “dueling cyclones jacknife / they got eyes for your wife / and the blood that lives in her heart”. The song never returns to this form, giving way to a prodding Spanish guitar sound for the verses, full of wonderful, amusing asides – “shadowy figures babbling on about typical rural shit”, “Priest says ‘please / I can’t stand my knees / and I can’t stand her raven tresses caught up in the breeze like that’”, “I gave my cargo to the sea / I gave the water what it always wanted to be” – which culminate in searing, wholly cathartic guitar riffs amid a cacophony of ha la da da’s. This all ends at six-and-a-half minutes, when Bejar slows things right down, lightly strums the Spanish guitar and muses about brooms, drawings, gratifying dust, golden slumbers and more ha la da da da’s for the next three minutes. Solemn perfection that manages to never outstay its welcome.
Anyone who was lost in that final three minutes should come back around with “Your Blues”, the second track, however. Its upbeat pop melody gives the album a shot in the arm and doesn’t sound much different to the types of songs I imagine they would have played at the indie barns back in the olden days, what with its jumpy, rollicking piano and classic rock guitar line. More Bejar oddity too – “Endangered ape / a couple years in solitary never really hurt anyone / distinguished colleagues / dead music-writers’ brides / I apologise”.
The following track, “European Oils”, is one of my favourite songs of all-time. A strange thing to say considering I’ve probably only known of its existence for about a year, but it’s no exaggeration. Built on a melancholic piano line, this gorgeous tune strolls along heavenly, Bejar wistfully musing about “all the incompatible cells I could take”. The chorus, like many on the album, is more ha la da da’s, amid quickening piano strokes. Duelling guitar riffs, horns and pianos close out a majestic masterpiece, perhaps Destroyer’s best tune.
Another reason that I love this album is that it recalls a lot of late 60s, early 70s David Bowie. It’s plain to see in the piano flourishes, the elaborate lyrics – you could see Bejar penning something like Cygnet Committee – and even some of his vocal affectations. “Looter’s Follies”, with its slow, romantic piano-led waltz and touching lyrical moments – “kid you better change your feathers / cos you’ll never fly with those things” – is the best Bowie song the man himself didn’t write.
The second half is slightly less amazing, though far from ordinary. “Watercolours Into The Ocean” is a gorgeous relaxing tune that literally sounds like wading into a vast sea, with no real direction, just a girl’s watercolours as guidance. “3000 Flowers” kicks off the second half with a positive jolt, Bejar’s double-tracked voice hidden underneath more Bowie piano and a fun guitar hook.
“A Dangerous Woman Up To A Point” is more of the classic rock-inspired music done so well on this record, and one of the more amusing songs lyrically, not even subtly hiding the references. “Have I told you lately that I love you? / Did I fail to mention there’s a sword hanging above you? / Those who love Zeppelin will soon betray Floyd / I cast off those couplets in honour of the void”
“Priest’s Knees” continues in the same vein, adding some deep horns to the mix, and more da da da’s, just in case you didn’t get the point the first seven times around. Luckily, they work so well it never feels overdone, and you can’t accuse Bejar of being short of ideas.
The closer, “Sick Priest Who Learns To Last Forever”, has been maligned by some critics. It stretches the album out beyond 50 minutes at six minutes in length, and its bluesy, drunken feel has been lambasted for being at odds with the rest of the album. But don’t get sucked in by the negativity; it’s a brilliant ending. To me this track has always felt like Bejar deciding their set of songs for the night (the preceding nine, in this case) has been pretty fucking good, and let’s go to the bar for a drink. And hey, look! There’s a stage, and instruments. Let’s get up there and fuck around. The meta, barfly aesthetic of this track has always appealed to me, and adds some fun to the mix.
That’s about all I’ve got to say on the album. I haven’t said it especially well, but then again, I’ve never been a great music writer. I just love music to death, love the way it makes me feel, and so I vomit words onto a page in attempt to get that across to other people. Basically all I’m trying to say is Destroyer is an amazing band, Rubies is an amazing album, and if you have decent taste in music, give it a few listens and tell me what you thought.
Why can’t you see
That life in art
And life in mimicry
It’s the same thing?!