Destroyer Albums From Worst To Best
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.
9. We'll Build Them A Golden Bridge (1996)Destroyer's 1996 homespun debut is a perfect snapshot of a major artist finding his legs, the sort of anything-goes miasma that Eric's Trip used to render free from concerns for fidelity and an emphasis on one-take spontaneity. It would have required a particularly discerning ear to identify Bejar in this iteration as the major songwriter he was to become, but the evidence is there on close inspections of tunes like the devil-may-care "I, As, McCarthy" and the stoned-contemplations of "J. Tailor," which previews both Bejar's penchant for poignant, elliptical character sketches and surprise mentions of rock loyalty past (this time it's Roger McGuinn). Like the experience of watching Michael Jordan as a high school senior, We'll Build Them A Golden Bridge is fun in the sense of "Well, we thought he was GOOD. But we had no idea what he'd become …."
8. City Of Daughters (1998)1998's City Of Daughters finds Bejar refining both his sound and songcraft, with the first inklings of the powerful work that is just around the corner. "No Cease Fires! (Crimes Against The State Of Our Love, Baby)" is an acoustic gem hinting at the vaulting heights of romanticism and passive remove that will characterize future classics like "Helena" and "Foam Hands." In the meantime, the jittery "School And The Girls That Go There" points toward the soon-to-be-developed glam/brit-rock leanings, as well as an early clue into the artist's charming, unreliable-narrative approach to storytelling: "I am a tastemaker and I kill things/ I am not a tastemaker and I kill things." If We'll Build Them A Golden Bridge was a longshot's bet, City Of Daughters decreases those metrics considerably.
7. Thief (2000)The exceptional Thief represents a crucial advance in a young talent's attempts at reckoning with the extent of his powers. As a first track, "Destroyer's The Temple" is a raising of the stakes equivalent to the Replacements' "I Will Dare" from Let It Be, or "Girls And Boys" from Blur's Parklife. Having gotten his first near-perfect track under his belt there is no telling how good he might become. From there we get the confectionary, rephrased "City Of Daughters," the languid and lovely "Queen Of Languages" and the overall sense of a vital artist ready to take flight. Miracles are about to happen.
6. Your Blues (2004)Perhaps the most overtly theatrical of all Destroyer releases, Your Blues is a brilliant but decidedly high-concept take on folk rock as processed through a dramatic amalgam of synths, over-the-top backing vocals, and a general disposition to the confusing emotional catharsis of Broadway. Bejar has averred his love of this music before, stating in a Pitchfork interview: "I really liked this one record where Bing Crosby narrated 'The Emperor's New Clothes' and 'Jack B. Nimble.' He would do the voices of all the characters. I still have the record -- my daughter is pretty into it now." Here Bejar indulges these preferences on songs like "An Actor's Revenge," which begins as a secondhand promise of retribution from an ignored thespian, and morphs into a full-blown blues for the disregarded. Meanwhile, "From Oakland To Warsaw" sympathizes with a would-be contender over music resembling a medieval fanfare: "I know your style/ you've got drastic desires." Don't we all.
5. Trouble In Dreams (2008)The brilliant Trouble In Dreams is in some ways the orphan child of the Destroyer catalog, perched someplace between the overt rock tendencies of Streethawk and the more contemplative gestures that were to follow. Opener "Blue Flower/Blue Flames," with its winsome reference to "fresh hells to attend to," is perhaps the most engaging opening track in a long line of brilliant Destroyer entrees. Meanwhile the explicit rock moves of the follow up track "Dark Leaves Form A Thread" lights the way toward a new, Feelies-style jangle rock approach. Overall, this is a transitional record, but also a great one. Album closer "Libby's First Sunrise" is Destroyer's "Day In The Life" -- a gorgeous and disturbing account of a compelling character who has divided his time between wandering around and fucking around. "The light holds a terrible secret," Bejar repeats -- and who could doubt him.
4. This Night (2002)The sprawling, nearly 70-minute This Night was an audacious gesture from an artist who had only recently established his bona fides as one of independent music's most talented exemplars. With its extensive running time and evidently intentional disjointed group of characters, This Night is a knotty, challenging affair somewhat akin to periodically difficult but hugely rewarding double albums like the Beatles' White Album or Dylan's Blonde On Blonde. Stylistic shifts abound, and the band often plays with first-take looseness, but all of it rings true, from the rollicking anthem to artistic ambivalence "Modern Painters" to the desperate confessional "Self Portrait With Thing (Tonight Is Not Your Night)." An adventurous album that sets the stage for later, no-holds-barred forays into experimentation such as the Archer On The Beach EP.
3. Streethawk: A Seduction (2001)The first full-fledged masterpiece in the Destroyer catalog, Streethawk is a tour de force of fearful proportions, a full distillation of a brilliant songwriter's gift for acid-tongued wit, indelible melody, and into-the-mystic meditations on art and love. Rock and roll has rarely been so quotable -- there is a hardly a minute that goes by on Streethawk without Bejar enlivening matters with a laugh-out-loud turn of phrase or withering insight -- but unforgettable tunes like the monster glam strut of "The Sublimation Hour," the gorgeous, strumming ballad "Helena," and the devastating Ian Curtis tribute "Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (Sea Of Tears)" prove more than a match for the lyrical pyrotechnics. Before Streethawk, Bejar seemed like a clever writer of considerable promise with a lot of good ideas rattling around in his unusual mind. Afterward, it seemed like we just might have a genius on our hands.
2. Destroyer's Rubies (2006)Following highly successful experiments with This Night and Your Blues, 2006's Rubies brings it all back home with a remarkably muscular collection of top-notch performances, pitch-perfect production, and Bejar's best collection of songs to date. The tour-de-force nine-plus-minute opening title track sets the table and plays as both manifesto ("Cast myself to infinity/ I have my reasons") and warning shot: Bejar has got a lot on his mind, and every intention of speaking his piece. It is a thrilling beginning, full of mystery, prophecy and even a sarcastic shout out to the "precious American underground"*. From there we get a little bit of everything -- the band blitzkrieging through the hectic new wave shuffle of "3000 Flowers" and lounging purposefully through the druggy psych-blues of "Sick Priest Learns To Last Forever." The stunning "European Oils" may be the best thing Bejar has ever done -- a gorgeously wistful love song simmering with menace. Rubies was an extraordinary refinement of his musical and lyrical themes, executed at an impossibly high level. It was difficult to figure out how Bejar was going to top it.
*When we once described Dylan's "Changing of the Guards" as the ultimate proto-Destroyer song, this is the kind of thing we had in mind.
1. Kaputt (2011)The 2009 release of the terrific epic single "Bay Of Pigs" tipped listeners off to a more restrained but no less intense direction for Destroyer, but there was no way of anticipating how effectively that approach would cohere on the beautiful and harrowing noir of Kaputt, one of the finest records of the past thirty years. Paradoxically, Bejar achieves ever greater things by doing less -- paring away at his elaborate constructions and finding the essence of his material's greatness through the simple repetition of unforgettable epigrams on songs like "Chinatown" and the title track. His singing has never sounded better, resting comfortably alongside a backing band that owes a lot to Roxy Music but crucially never lacks its own identity or sounds like a knockoff. By the time pop confection "Savage Night At The Opera" segues into the grandiose and disturbing sprawl of "Suicide Demo For Kara Walker," with neither sounding remotely out of place, it is clear that Bejar has just about alchemized his vision into something like an entirely new genre -- familiar, distinct, timeless, and unnamable. A brilliant party of one.