View Full Size 1 / 10   
  • Destroyer Albums From Worst To Best
Tags: / Credit:

Though it is easy to imagine him recoiling in horror from the appellation, Dan Bejar is quintessentially a songwriter’s songwriter. All through the back rooms of the world at night, admiring cohorts are whispering that that Bejar is one motherfucker you just can’t beat for trying. Seriously, he is so good it can be genuinely aggravating — like he’s playing a different sport from other songwriters. Take this not atypical account from celebrated recording artist (and Stereogum contributor) James Jackson Toth:

When Rubies came out, I was in the middle of making a record. I’d been a fan of Thief and Streethawk, so I went to buy the new Destroyer album while some tedious percussion overdub was going on at the studio. I wish I hadn’t because it inspired a meltdown of Brian Wilson-hearing-Sgt. Pepper’s proportions. I suddenly wanted to scrap the album I was working on. Rubies was so great it actually made me mad at Dan Bejar. I was totally jealous. This has really only happened one other time — when I heard Bill Callahan’s A River Ain’t Too Much To Love while making a previous album. As such, I put Bejar alongside Callahan (and Vic Chesnutt) as one of the greatest that ever was.

You hear that kind of thing a lot about Bejar. A sensational songsmith and quite possibly the greatest lyricist of his generation, throughout his seventeen-year recording career as Destroyer he has been an ever evolving bastion of brilliance, beginning strong with his dedicatedly lo-fi releases We’ll Build Them A Golden Bridge and City Of Daughters and advancing gradually to the near perfect heights of Destroyer’s Rubies and 2011′s masterpiece Kaputt. Currently there is no one better, or more idiosyncratic, working within the idiom.

Taken in full, Bejar’s catalog has little in common with contemporary norms or trends. And truthfully, to contextualize his work in terms of its historic touchstones is thorny and perhaps not particularly helpful. There was the oft-noted Hunky Dory-era Bowie-ism’s of the early records Thief and Streethawk: A Seduction; secondhand accounts of his ambitions for the sprawling, panoramic This Night alleged an attempt to conceptualize Morrissey fronting Neil Young’s band from Tonight’s The Night; the aggressively inorganic synths of Your Blues nodded to Leonard Cohen’s great mid-career albums I’m Your Man and The Future, while the soft-rock atmospherics of Rubies and Kaputt betray a fondness for Roxy Music and terrific, underappreciated late-’70s Van Morrison records like Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart. All these rock critic reference points are true, but herein lies the problem — none of them really explains very much about listening to Destroyer. (Further complicating the issue is Bejar’s own preoccupation with the literal mention of popular music in his lyrics — he is constantly prone to digressions about and quotations from other songwriters. Listening to his records can occasionally feel like paging through a particularly bright and highly peculiar ’80s ’zine.)

In this way, Bejar tempts critics to explain his music in conventional terms, to play the kind of rock music-as-continuum SAT game that is “The Velvet Underground is to Sonic Youth as (BLANK) is to Destroyer.” Hell, with all the name-dropping, he practically baits the trap. It is pretty much all misdirection. There is no combination of influences that remotely explains Bejar’s writing. He is that rarest of birds in a genre practically premised on the recycling of old tropes — a truly visionary original.

What does a Destroyer song sound like? And what in the hell is Bejar singing about? Again, attempts at deconstructing these questions tend to defy a useful vocabulary, and ultimately flatter neither critic nor artist. You could say that his most persistent themes involve love and aesthetics, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but that doesn’t make it any more of an adequate description. There is his utterly characteristic adenoidal singing voice, a great instrument capable of subtlety, vitriol and a flare for difficult, exhilarating phrasing unparalleled anywhere this side of Bob Dylan. Increasingly, his songs have pared back in terms of overt musical complexity, favoring simple themes over the borderline vaudeville showiness of some of his early composition. But Bejar has sacrificed nothing in this process, trading tricky bridges and complex song structures for songs of arresting efficiency and startling gravity.

Bejar’s lyrics are unarguably and unapologetically poetic, replete with allegorical mysteries, romantic allusions, tender verses, and bitter recriminations, and even the occasional turn into what feels like surreal, Coleridge-style prophesy. This is dicey business for rock and roll, whose relationship with the overtly poetic has tended to yield the most insufferably pretentious results. Bringing to bear the enormity of his talent, Bejar consistently skips through these hurdles, deflating high-minded sentiments with gut-punch humor, persistently managing the neat trick of keeping one foot in the academy and the other one in the gutter. He sings, most often, with a journalistic remove, assessing the culture and society around him with the gimlet eye of one who spends more time thinking and observing rather than actually participating. On what was perhaps his first truly great song, “Destroyer’s The Temple,” Bejar sang that there is “joy in being barred from the temple,” and that sentiment is one possible leitmotif for understanding his work at large. He is consummately a chosen outsider, an underground figure in the music industry, a born poet ghettoized by his association with rock and roll, a native Canadian constantly reckoning with the enormous vulgarities and possibilities of his looming American cousin — “so violently in bloom.” Some have remarked that Bejar’s lyrics are inscrutable, and maybe some are, but for the most part it really isn’t true. The guy clearly grooves to his own head, but put a little time into it, and you can usually get a good sense of what’s at stake.

There really isn’t a bad Destroyer release, and there are several that easily qualify as great. Discerning music fans would do themselves a wealth of good purchasing everything that follows on this list. Perhaps most thrilling is the fact that Bejar seems to be achieving ever more appreciable creative heights, and unlike other acts whose promise understandably fades as their first and best ideas give way to aimlessness and uncertainty, Destroyer appears poised to dazzle us in ever novel and distinctive ways. Here is a rundown of the records so far with an excited eye on what’s to follow.

Start the Countdown here.

Tags:  
Comments (41)
  1. “…one of the finest records of the past thirty years.”

    No arguments here! “Kaputt” is simply amazing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you MUST listen to this album with “The Laziest River” in between “Song for America” and “Bay of Pigs”. The 19 minute mega suite is the Side C of the vinyl version and, in my opinion, is essential to experiencing this whole album. It distances “Bay of Pigs” from the rest of the album, causing it to have a stronger impact as the album’s closer.

    Ted Bois composed “The Laziest River” and also shot that amazing cover art picture. I fortunately ran into him after a Destroyer concert and was able to inform him (drunkenly) of my sincere love of “The Laziest River” and I think he was pleasantly surprised. Great guy. But yeah! Nothing like taking a masterpiece, tossing in a 19 minute track, and making it even better.

  2. Glad you did this one, and I mostly agree with the order. The top three is exactly what I’d have, so no qualms there. I would, however, move City of Daughters and Your Blues up to five and four respectively. I still give both of those a lot of play, and I think the consistency of the latter and the ramshackle charm of the former gives them a slight advantage over Trouble in Dreams and This Night, both of which have some stellar highs but some pretty middling bits as well. I always felt like Thief felt straddled this awkward middle ground between Daughters and Streethawk, so it never really clicked for me aside from the first three tracks, which are indeed killer.

    I like that you don’t shit all over Trouble in Dreams, which many people do. I’ve always liked that one quite a bit, especially “My Favorite Year,” which is one of his best songs. He’s one of the great songwriters we’ve had over the past twenty years, and I hope he continues cranking albums out and throwing us weird curveballs for years to come.

  3. Agreed, such a brilliant piece of music. People need to hear this if they haven’t already.

  4. Agree with the last few for the most part. My top five, however, would be:

    5) Rubies
    4) Trouble in Dreams
    3) This Night
    2) Kaputt
    1) Streethawk

    I just absolutely love when Dan Bejar writes more straightforward pop songs. His songs are consistently my favorites on pretty much every New Pornographers records, and Streethawk seems to be as New Pornographery as he gets in his Destroyer mode, while still maintaining some Bejar eccentricities. It’s one of my 15-20 favorite albums of all time.

  5. Good list, hard to disagree with anything, especially the top 3. You’ve redeemed yourselves in my book after that Best National songs debacle.

  6. Tim & Elizabeth:

    Your lead-up article is arguably the best piece on Bejar/Destroyer I’ve ever come across. Doing this man justice is no simple task (lord knows, I’ve tried both in writing and in conversation for years.)

    So well thought out and articulated.

    For a man that references the “scene” and rock critics on the regular, I may even say that Bejar himself would feel good about this.

    High-five, guys — Stereogum, give these 2 a raise.

  7. Guess after that clusterfuck of a National list you guys just wanted to publish a no-brainer, huh?

  8. I would just like to point out that Stereogum put “Kaputt” as its TWENTY SEVENTH best album of 2011. Sorry, guys, but I have to call you on that one — I’ve been storing up the resentment for quite awhile.

    • Yeah, that was weak.

      It was my #1 album in 2011 the moment I heard it. (Proof: http://stereogum.com/891411/stereogums-top-50-albums-of-2011/franchises/listomania/comment-page-1/#comment-7544192 )

      Notice how Shabazz Palaces didn’t even make the Top 50? So much wrong with that list. Hindsight is 20/20, I guess.

      • It’s crazy how we make this big deal at the end of every year to decree the best albums and then what happens, the rat race starts all over again, and we forget most of the albums anyway, though I guess there is always a handful of albums that connect emotionally – I’d say Kaputt is one of those for me that year too – and that’s what we are all searching for in our voracious consumption.

        Speaking of Shabazz, they are playing the Granda on May 2nd, it’s a thursday so I don’t know if you can come out but IT’S SHABAZZ so I’m definitely going to be there.

        • Yeah I saw that and I don’t think I’ll be able to make it :( :( :(

          They’re with THEEsatisfaction too! So collaboraten’ will occur. I got to see them both in Iceland so that memory will have to suffice. But I’m still planning to be there Saturday for Yo La Tengo!

    • To be fair it has aged like the finest of wines. I wasn’t completely sold at the outset.

  9. awesome article! for me, I’d switch the first two, but really cannot complain here

  10. For as many perfect songs as Destroyer has put forth, his best might actually be the Pitchfork (and 2011-12 touring) version of Libby’s First Sunrise. Absolutely crushing.

  11. The siblings Bracy have never listened to Thief.

  12. I’d have Streethawk at #1 with Rubies at #2 and have Kaputt pretty far down the list, but I think I’m alone on this.

  13. Hell fucking no. Your Blues is probably the best album of the 2000s. 1st all the way. What are you guys missing?

  14. As Dylan would put it: It’s all good!

  15. And The Laziest River is, in did, an epic and unparalleled masterpiece.

  16. Great list and superb writing, as usual. I’d switch 1 and 2 (but just barely) and try to find a way to move Thief up (though I have no idea how I would achieve this – three way tie for 4th or something?). I stand by my quote in the opening paragraph. Dude makes me wanna go all Tonya Harding.

  17. Solid list, I would switch the top 2 but really their placement in the top 2 suffices. Would be interesting to include Notorious Lightning & Other Works into the conversation, even if it was connected to Your Blues. It is only an EP but I am not sure if Destroyer’s Rubies would have happened without his collaboration with Carey Mercer.

  18. I never really got into this guy’s music, but I guess this is probably a good time to give it another shot.

  19. you probably have a reason for not including “ideas for songs.” if anyone’s interested: it is definitely a standalone album and better than “we’ll build them a golden bridge” in my humble, anonymous (or otherwise) opinion.

  20. I LOVE LOVE LOVE Kaputt but the rest of their discography just doesn’t do it for me. I wish I could like it, but it really is nothing like Kaputt and I think that’s why I have such a hard time with their earlier work.

  21. I guess this site is pretending that Deerhunter didn’t leak.

  22. Anytime a friend of mine asks me “What should I listen to if I want to start this whole indie music thing?”, I’d tell them straight up Kaputt by Destroyer. It’s just a gorgeous, deceptively simple, impeccably made, and extremely ACCESSIBLE. And don’t even get me started on “Bay of Pigs” and how I feel every time those synth start.

  23. Dan Nancarrow  |   Posted on Apr 13th, 2013 +2

    Rubies the best for mine. One of my favourite albums of all time.

  24. your blues, definitely. kaputt has left me cold after several listens.

  25. To each their own, but to me Streethawk is far and away is best album. Plays well the whole way through. A true classic.

  26. Kaputt is a masterpiece. Best album of the last 3 years. Saw the tour in Toronto and it was so good – he is a great live act.

  27. Every time I am reminded how awesome Destroyer and Dan Bejar is, it’s a good thing.

  28. Putting Your Blues, Trouble In Dreams and This Night all before City of Daughters and Thief seems so backwards to me. Am I the only one who had a hard time finding more than one or two DECENT tracks off those albums? City of Daughters and Thief always seemed like companion pieces to me and Streethawk/Rubies/Kaputt are all sort of tied for 1st for me, so the list makes sense otherwise. Maybe I’m just a fairweather fan.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post, reply to, or rate a comment.

%s1 / %s2